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Posted: February 5, 2011 12:00 a.m.

The smile that doesn't stop

Long-time café owner thrives on diversity

By Gabriel Khouli/

Long-time businessman: James Hamm has run the Town House Café for 45 years, and while the restaurant has not changed much, the community around it certainly has.

This story is the first in a series of Black History Month profiles The News will be featuring during February and also marks the beginning of our efforts to expand our video and multimedia coverage. Please visit covnews.com/reflections to see a video interview with James Hamm, owner of Town House Café. Look for an upcoming video interview and profile of community staples T.K. and Louise Adams.

When James Hamm walks through the doors of Town House Café any negativity just melts away, and he puts on a smile that lasts the whole day.

"Just like Michael Jackson used to light up when he went on stage, I light up when I open that door. It makes me feel like, ‘I’m loving life,’ when I open that door," said Hamm, the 67-year-old owner of local eatery Town House Café, 1145 Washington Street S.W. "I’ve never been mad here."

Hamm and his mother, a local school teacher, opened the café in 1965.

"We weren’t planning to stay but three years, and we’ve stayed now about 46 years. And I look back, the only thing I sell differently, is a cheese split, it was a regular split. I still sell it. And people still buy it. And I still fix it the same way I did in ’65," Hamm said.

The split, also known as a red link, is a sausage, and was one of the most popular dishes back in the day.

"People can’t cook like I work them. People burn it up, or they just can’t cook it," he said.

Hamm sells many classics, from burgers to grilled cheese, ham and BLT sandwiches. He also sells southern staples like fish, fried chicken, pork chops and steak, as well as fried okra and collard greens, and of course sweet potato pie.

"It’s sweet potato custard. I cook it a special way — it can’t be duplicated," he said.

As the years have passed, he has adapted to some trends. He cooks healthier now, using less grease and grilling more of his foods. Years ago he switched to using fresh ground beef for his burgers, as opposed to pre-made patties.

That’s not the only thing that’s changed. The Town House Café used to be a prominent gathering point for local civil rights activists, and though Hamm never participated in the marches, he did his part by feeding the "soldiers." He never had any trouble though — not even a single window was defaced or broken.

His first white customer was Neil Banks, a man who worked next door and couldn’t resist the café’s burgers. Today, Hamm serves all kinds and he loves it.

"When we first started, all this area was all black. And then as the years progressed, I’m feeding people all over the world," he said. "It’s been so much fun to be here with the citizens of Newton County and Conyers; I think I’ve fed people from different places in New York and California. It’s been a fun time to meet different people."

Though Hamm’s hair and mustache are gray, he still has the drive that he discovered long ago. As long as that remains, the Town House Café’s doors will always be open to split and potato pie lovers.

"We do the best we can and that’s it," Hamm said. "Covington has been good to me."

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