Jo Ann Muhammad
Co-owner/Chef/Server, Shabazz Cafe
1410 24th Ave (Central District), 720-7029.

A lot can happen in three years. Just ask all-around inspiring lady Jo Ann Muhammad. Shabazz got off to a quiet start on 20th and Yesler as a fish 'n' fries spot, but Jo Ann and her husband Vance's Friday-night dinners became so popular that they quit their jobs to operate the café full-time. In a busy neighborhood that tempts diners with Philly cheesesteaks and Creole favorites, Shabazz offers lighter fare such as delicious sandwiches (especially the chicken or salmon, with lettuce, tomato, cucumber slices, and a brilliant basil-pesto vinaigrette), lightly battered fresh fish, bean pie (the house special), and a variety of thick fruit smoothies. You'll find the café in a green house just off Union (the family lives right upstairs), and inside you'll find Jo Ann gracefully taking orders, chatting up regulars, and cooking your lunch.

So tell me the Shabazz story.
"[My husband and I] really didn't know how this place was going to turn out. Our whole dream and vision was that we wanted to give the community a healthy eating choice, because a lot of people of color suffer very much in the medical area--things like diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart problems..."

...because traditional Southern favorites are such rich and fatty foods?
"Right. I get very concerned."

And you're involved with the community.
"[The restaurant] took a turn. It's not just an eating spot, it became... a place where we were not just giving physical food, but spiritual food as well. We call it our 'place of refuge'--and we love it. It's about giving back to the community. When the children come in here, they have to come in with respect. They have to come in and say 'yes, ma'am,' 'no, ma'am'; they can't come in sagging; they can't come in counting drug money. We've also helped some women from the streets, crack addicts... providing this space as a supportive gathering spot and sending them to recovery. People will hold meetings here; and then we have the Women of Courage Ministry [meeting here too]. Also, we've done a program for the children, where if they show they have a [grade-point average of] 3.0 or higher, they get a free lunch. We've also fed some people who just didn't have the money at the time, and we just give them the food, and have them come back and pay. I haven't had anyone who didn't keep their word."

Are you always working alone, doing everything yourself?
"You know this business, it's so competitive. So my husband went back to work this year, and I do have someone come in and help a few hours a week."

But you don't seem to need any help in the kitchen...
"I had to learn a lot, like preparing the fresh salmon myself, seasoning it... and we're still revising the menu. People have been requesting more salads, so that's coming. And [learning to make] the bean pie was very hard for me--my husband was the pro at that. It's such a technique, the whole process of making bean pie, and I was forced to learn that. [Laughs.] Now I'm a pro at it."

Interview by Min Liao