“Hey Sugar,” said Mama Cole as she greeted the young woman with a warm hug and a smile while filing paperwork at one of the dining tables.
“A hug a day keeps the doc away,” Cole said.
A familial euphoria filled the Anacostia Restaurant & Catering, also known as Cole’s Café, where folks can get some of “the best soul food in town.” The café serves yams, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, baked chicken, mashed potatoes, fish, cornbread, Cole’s famous banana pudding and more.
Located at 1918 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., in Southeast D.C., people can feed and receive some tough or tender love and care from restaurant owner and operator Evangeline Cole-Thompson, known as Mama Cole. Many describe her as “the grandmother that every community needs,” wrote Candace H. of Washington, D.C., on Yelp.com, a Web site where people can post reviews about various restaurants.
Cole’s “food for the soul” is made from scratch with recipes learned from her mother and others she created on her own.
“I’ve been cooking all my life,” Cole said. “God gave me the ability to cook. My food is healing to a lot of people.”
Cole’s Café, an intimate 15-table restaurant operates from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the week and 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on the weekends. The restaurant sells breakfast, lunch and dinner with prices averaging from $8 for a dinner plate, to $7 for breakfast and free if you’re in need.
“God blesses you in so many ways,” Cole said of her desire to offer free meals. “I mean food, what is it to feed somebody?”
Cole has helped Lady B., formally known as Bessie Brown, 76, who sat at a table near the entrance of the restaurant eating and surveying the scene.
Brown’s husband passed away in 2004. Before he passed he would frequent Cole’s Café for some southern home cooking. Brown found herself in some financial troubles. Cole charged Brown a discounted price and on some days didn’t charge her at all.
Brown comes to the restaurant everyday for her breakfast, which consists of turkey bacon and scrambled eggs. For dinner, she has four chicken wings, a dash of greens and a dash of corn. Brown has type-2 diabetes, and Cole makes sure she eats right.
“She has too much love in her, and I love the way she pampers me,” Brown said.
Cole enforces healthy-eating habits for all of her clients even if it requires refusing to sell them two starches such as a plate including only a meat, yams and macaroni and cheese. She stresses the importance of eating a vegetable.
Cole’s faithful customer Brown hopes to see Cole receive some financial assistance especially at a time when businesses need it most.
Cole said that at one point the water company threatened to shut off the water but a friend at Allstate paid the bill. Others including her son, Tony Cole, Council Member Marion Barry and her spiritual guide Rev. Motley have pitched in to help during financial hardships.
A man from New York came to visit Cole one day and said that he had the answer to all of her problems, Cole said. He wanted to make her business a franchise and Cole refused.
“My name is not for sale,” she said.
Despite the issues her business may be facing she continues to feed the homeless and children in need and she gives the senior citizens discounts.
“I believe God evens all things out so I don’t worry about recession,” Cole said. “I have wonderful customers, long-time customers who are strictly and totally wonderful.”
Family members both related and unrelated and some of her regular customers grab a bite to eat and then stick around to help out by cleaning up the restaurant, taking orders and assisting customers.
LaTonya Ramsey, 38, works in the area and has been coming to the restaurant for about eight months.
She sat across from Mama Cole chatting it up and grubbing down on some fried fish. She stops in on the wintry mornings to get a cup of tea before work. Ramsey cleans the local streets for the Gospel Rescue Ministries, a ready-to-work program. She comes to the restaurant every weekend and plays cards.
“It’s like I’m family,” Ramsey said. “It’s always a happy and joyous moment when you come (to the restaurant).”
Ramsey cleaned the tables and fulfilled customers’ food requests.
Cole, 55, is a mother of eight and a wife of seven years. Cole and her husband William Thompson opened their first restaurant in 1995 at 1208 Maple View Place, three blocks from the current location.
Since her husband had a stroke in February 2007, Cole has struggled to keep things in order. He is now in a nearby nursing home. He cooked the breakfast in the morning and helped prepare food for lunch and dinner. She describes him as a “phenomenal man.”
“My days were very easy,” Cole said. “It is much harder because he is not here. He made it easy. He took care of everything.”
Besides working on getting her business back on its feet, she is also working toward bringing her husband home.
A young boy passing by the restaurant with some friends waved at Mama Cole through the glass window and then came in.
“Hey baby,” Cole said.
The two spoke for a moment about his day, what he’s been up to and whether he ate or not.
“Don’t say ‘yea’ say ‘yes,'” said Cole, correcting his speech.
“Okay,” the boy said. “I love you.” He hugged her, then turned and exited the store with his friends.
“Mama Cole is from the old school.” said Barbara Doy,68. “There’s not too many people who care about people,” added Doy, who has known Cole for 30 years. “She greets people like she knows them. Nobody is a stranger.”
“I love being Mama Cole,” Cole said. “It is a blessing.”
Cole acquired the name from her son, Tony, who began calling her “Mama Cole” as a child.
She later changed the name of the restaurant to reflect her love for the Anacostia neighborhood.
Hanging on the restaurant walls were photos of President Barack Obama and signs that read “Yes we can.” There were two framed Washington Post articles about the restaurant written by Allan Lengel, a photo of a black church congregation, other black art and a certificate of appreciation presented by the Fifth Annual AUA TAC Black History Program.
Silver and pink trees sit atop square tables at the front corners of the restaurant. At the base of the pink tree with pink ornaments is a photo of a young girl dressed in red.
The young girl was Cole’s sister who was killed by her fiancée last year. She was 34. Cole said her sister’s death tore her up. The pink tree, which represents her sister, makes her feel comfortable.
The silver tree represents her mother who died shortly after Cole’s sister. Cole believed that her mother, who was struggling with health complications, died from a broken heart after the death of her younger daughter.
Cole is a spiritual woman and she said that faith has helped her through life’s hurdles. In turn she believes her faith in people can help others.
“Love changes people,” Cole said. “I can’t let go because I know people need help, love and attention. I try not to give up.”
Cole dished out some remedies over the phone for ways to get over a cold. She advised the daughter of the owner of the flower shop next door to be sure to do her homework and get to bed on time. She reflected on the day she told a drug addict to check himself into rehab or else he would not be allowed back into the restaurant.
He had entered the store asking her for change causing her to remember that day. She said he had returned a few days after her advice and shouted: “I love you Mama Cole. I love you.” The restaurant was packed that day she said. She smiled.
Cole believes in the people of her community.
“Mama has been here for years,” said Jason Wilson, 28, of Southeast. “She lived in Southeast, she’ll die in Southeast. This is where it all started.”