If you have lived in Charlottesville or have travelled through, chances are you’ve heard of Mel’s Cafe. It is located in a cozy space on West Main Street, in a landmark building designed in the 60s. The iconic orange-and-blue sign out front points diners in the direction of a great meal and a unique Charlottesville experience.
Chef and owner Melvin Eugene Walker (Mel) serves up straightforward southern cooking, prepared with love, in an unpretentious setting. His clientele is among the most eclectic of Charlottesville attracting academia, visitors, white and blue collar workers … all seated close to each other, enjoying Mel’s food.
On June 24, 2014, Mel will receive the Chuck Lewis Passion Award, presented by Forward/Adelante and the UVA Office for Diversity and Equity, in honor of his entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to the community – as well as his delicious food. The award celebrates the legacy of Chuck Lewis by honoring diverse local entrepreneurs each year.
Mel was born and raised in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood in the fifties, with his freedom cramped by segregation and cultural discrimination. Today he is a highly regarded citizen, a business owner, and a family man dedicated to his wife Tia Walker and their children Emoni and Jeremiah.
As early as age nine, Mel started to work washing dishes at the Virginian restaurant on the University of Virginia’s “Corner.” His mother, a hard working and determined woman, also worked at the restaurant.
At age sixteen, a major breakthrough occurred at the Virginian, when his boss Mr. Frank Kessler Sr., asked Mel to help cover for the cook who didn’t showed up that evening. Both Mr. Kessler and Mel cooked for the patrons throughout the night. Unknown to him, that day, his career as a cook took off thanks to Mr. Kessler’s confidence and encouragement. That evening, Mel received the tools to forge his own destiny.
Later he worked at a fine local restaurant where he learned directly from the head Chef and later became a chef himself. At this time, he was in his twenties, filled with desires to be his own boss.
In 1984, Mel opened Mel’s Cafe at the current location on West Main St. During those years it was tough to attract the general public to his establishment. The area was considered a bad neighborhood, and students and residents were discouraged from visiting. After five years, he was forced to close.
Being an employee again was hard. He continued dreaming about owning his own restaurant and in 1995, he took another leap into ownership and re-purchased the same restaurant he previously closed. Today, Mel has an established business and enjoys an unmatched reputation among local residents, students, and tourists.
During the financial struggle of the 2008 recession, locals stopped spending their time and money in restaurants. Mel survived because the Cafe has always been a family business. Everyone, including his mom, worked in the business. Because Mel never believed in asking for loans, having the business free of debt was a plus during those hard times.
Mel explains that his greatest assets consisted of a strong family, loyal friends, and the relationship with counsellor and civil rights activist Eugene Williams, who has inspired him and has imparted strength through many years.
Mel’s advice to others is “Believe in yourself and your capacity to produce results. Don’t ever get discouraged by others and show up to work every day.”
Mel’s strong determination to be an entrepreneur, along with his dedication to family and the community, has enabled him to build a thriving business that is also a special gathering place and a unique Charlottesville landmark. Like the legendary entrepreneur Chuck Lewis, Mel has followed his vision and produced a legacy to be proud of. The Chuck Lewis Passion Award is a fitting tribute to Mel’s success.
You are invited to join Forward/Adelante for a Celebration of Business Diversity on June 24, 2014, when Mel will receive the award! Click here to learn more and register to attend.