The first thing you get when you arrive at Alcenia’s is a hug from the owner herself. Betty Joyce “B. J.” Chester-Tamayo believes that she has the world’s greatest customers. “I thank you for coming,” she tells each one, “because there are so many places you can go, and when you come to me, I really appreciate that.” But if it weren’t for a tragic event in B. J.’s life, there would be no Alcenia’s to go to at all.
In B. J.’s family, her 85 year old mother – whom the restaurant is named after – is known as the cook. “My mom has been cooking since she was about 9,” says B.J. “We always had homeade biscuits and fresh peach preserves, but she never thought of opening a restaurant.
B.J., however, knew early on that she wanted to manufacture her mother’s recipe for preserves. “Among our race, so many times our heritage dies with our ancestors,” she notes. “Great cooks, great prople, but we never get the recipes. And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted a legacy to go on with my mom.”
With a degree in business from LeMoyne-Owen College, B. J. was working for FedEx until on faithful day in 1996 that urged her onto the entrepreneurial path.
“I lost my only son in a motorcycle accident,” B. J. recalls. “That’s when I knew I could no longer work for somebody else or keep putting off what I had to do. Emotionally, I could not go back to work. I slept all the time. I didn’t sleep on the bed, I slept on a mattress on the floor.
“When I lost my son, it was like there was a hole in my heart and nobody knew how far it went,” she continues. “And you never get to the bottom. Every time you think you’re at the bottom, the hole drops even further.”
B. J. knew something had to give so that she could move on from tragedy and continue a tradition for her family – espcially her granddaughter Alcenia, who was born after her father’s – B.J.’s son – death. “If I’m here at the restaurant, I stay so busy,” says B. J. “I don’t have any time to think.”
If B. J. does have time to think about the past, it doesn’t show. Alcenia’s is a vibrant and happy place, and one of the best things about it is it’s atmosphere. Colorful tablecloths and decorations are sprayed about with a flair, and the game section has an assortment of well-worn favorites like chess, backgammon, and Monopoly.
Everyone’s experience at Alcenia’s is unique, and depending on what day you go, there is a different down-home treat to feed your soul. Some of her customers favorites are salmon crouquettes, pickled tomatoes, chicken and waffles, bread pudding, lemon icebox pie, sweet potato cobbler, apple butter and peach preserves – just to name a few.
B. J. challenges the typical idea of soul food and likes to experiment with a variety of spices and herbs in her cooking. “I pray everday that God blesses my hands,” she says. “I pray that no matter how good the food was to you on yesterday, that it’s better today, because that’s what soul food is all about. It’s about a love of joining people together from all over the world.”
She also quick to point out that if you’re a vegetarian or on a diet, there is something for you as well. “I do baked tilapia every day,” she says. “I do baked catfish every day. So don’t not come to Alcenia’s because you’re on a diet. I can give you what you want.
Surprisingly enough, it takes only three dedicated people to run Alcenia’s. B. J. cooks greet customers, and deals with management issues – and somehow still finds time to work on selling her renowed desserts and preserves, which is the direction B.J. wants to go in the future.
“My goal is to manufacture,” she says. “One day I hope to have my product in eateries like Cracker Barrel, sell preserves in casinos, open up Alcenia’s in airports, and have a thriving internet business. My goal is to be up and running with a website so when I wake up in the morning, I have a thousand orders!”
But for now she works on the offbeat and highly recommended restaurant in the Pinch District, cooking up family tradition. And it’s not always easy. “My biggest challenge is to get people to come and taste it for the first time. And that is still a challenge, even after nine years. If I get you in here one time….” she pauses and beams, “I’ve got you.”
From the Memphis Downtowner Magazine
December 2006 edition