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Clara's Last Supper

Page 5 of 8

Johnson arrived at the restaurant with suitcase in hand. Her former husband had thrown her out of the house, and she had no place to live. Miss Clara talked to the owner of some nearby apartments and got Johnson a place to stay rent-free until she was on her feet.

"I was real dedicated to her," Johnson says. "She was a good lady to all the employees. A person like that is rare."

Unfortunately, lease problems were not rare for Miss Clara's restaurants. Twice, her locations shut down because landlords, seeing how well the storefront shops were doing, decided they wanted to run the business themselves.

Miss Clara found her final location in an unlikely place: a building at 3126 Grand Ave., a cavernous old warehouse that in no way resembled a restaurant. But Miss Clara says that when she squinted and prayed, she saw what it would become. Miles didn't like it, however, and even tried to get back the money Clara had put down as a deposit, she says.

The couple sunk $86,000 of their own money into renovating the building. They added a second floor, put in a kitchen and carpets, painted the walls, and added tables and windows in the front. When they were done, they had a restaurant that could seat 300, with space for two steam-table lines. In 1986, the new Clara's Kitchen opened.

The first week in the new location cemented its success. A national convention of black Baptist ministers was in town, and word had spread that Clara's was a soul-food heaven on earth. The restaurant was swamped. "It was like a whole lot of bees swarming," Clara says. "It was the most money I made in my life."

With success came fame. Clara made the papers, and her advice was sought by television recipe shows.

Her success bred some stress. Miles acknowledges that he was a little jealous of all the attention Miss Clara got. The restaurant was his idea, and he was the one in charge of it, he says. But he let it ride. "I didn't want to hurt Clara," he says.

The restaurant became a mixing bowl where the rich and famous met the poor and ordinary. Clara had pictures of celebrities who came through: Eartha Kitt, Stephanie Mills, Barbara Jordan. Love of cooking and people created a winning cake. Miss Clara was living in the icing.

"I was flying high," she says.

"Cobbler dough has to be a little bit breadier...a biscuit-type thing. You make it from the same recipe, but you add a little bit more water, a little bit of baking powder. Use fresh or canned peaches, nutmeg, butter, and lemon juice. Lemon juice makes it come out: It makes the canned peaches taste fresh; it gives it enough tartness. When you go with fruit, if you don't get the tartness, it don't taste. It just taste flat."

It fell apart in snatches, like secret bites taken from a pie sitting in a window to cool.

Clara's Kitchen was threatened once again with moving. Her marriage, which had been the foundation of the restaurant, was cracking and shifting.

The man who owned the building had defaulted on a loan, so Miss Clara was left wondering about her future. She didn't want to move again, not after sinking so much money into the building. So she approached the new owners for help.

The owners were the newly created Southern Dallas Development Corporation, a nonprofit entity funded in part by the city of Dallas, created to help revitalize the city's southern sector. The group was just beginning a new loan program, offering loans to expand successful small businesses in southern Dallas, and in Clara's they saw a good prospect. They could loan money to a South Dallas icon, boosting the program's profile. So in 1991, the SDDC loaned Clara's $300,000 to purchase not just her restaurant, but the club beside it.

The SDDC promised help and aid to Miss Clara and her husband if they needed it. The restaurant was not required to submit a business plan for the loan. All the couple had to do was show they could meet monthly mortgage payments, and submit annual financial reports, SDDC executive director Jim Reid says. "We couldn't hold her hand and make her run her business correctly," he says today.

But at the same time the restaurant was securing the loan, Miss Clara was pulling out of the restaurant herself.

Things had become acrimonious between Miss Clara and Miles. She won't talk much about it today. She'd told some people that she had to leave the kitchen because she was too fat to cook. But that wasn't true. Truth was that she and her husband were having trouble. He'd brought in the children from his earlier marriage to run a second restaurant. And--according to his daughter Robyn--he had been having an affair. It was too much for Miss Clara to take. It got harder and harder to come to the restaurant and remain happy and upbeat for her customers. So she left--just walked away. She and Miles separated in 1991.

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Kaylois Henry