Chef Carl Redding opened Southern-themed Redding's Restaurant at the corner of Atlantic City's Pacific and Kentucky avenues in fall 2010 and has since engaged in community improvement efforts that have included feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving and hosting fundraisers for local charities.
Redding spent his earlier summers in his grandmother's kitchen, and that ultimately led the 47-year-old Marine sergeant and one-time aide to the Rev. Al Sharpton to open a restaurant in his native Harlem; he ran it for nearly a decade before moving his residence to Mays Landing. Initially not knowing that community leaders would look to Redding to anchor a revived Kentucky Avenue, he is now fully behind the effort and involved in community improvement efforts.
Q: What do you think could be done to facilitate more investment in (Atlantic City) business opportunities outside of the casinos?
A: I think that the city or the state - or both - can certainly start to entice people to come to Atlantic City, to open up independent businesses by giving tax breaks. Atlantic City has a high tax bracket for businesses. Here I'm paying close to $50,000 a year in property taxes, $12,000 a quarter. It's very high. I didn't pay $50,000 in New York City, and New York City is supposed to be the city that has exorbitant rates. It's just expensive to be here in Atlantic City as a business person because you pay a lot of taxes.
Q: Have any developers or investors contacted you to see how you are doing here? What about the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, or anyone else from the government?
A: No, and I think that is pretty sad that they have not come to get input from me. It would seem to me if anyone was going to redevelop an area where an anchor tenant is already in place ... it's not rocket science. I hope that someone reaches out, but that is also indicative of our society that we live in. It just doesn't happen in a lot of cases, so why? I don't know. I went to an event a few weeks ago at the Convention Center where the (Casino Reinvestment Development Authority) spoke before a group of people, the (Greater Atlantic City) Chamber and residents of Atlantic City, to put out feelers as to what should be done or what ideas people have with this (Atlantic City Tourism District) master plan they keep talking about. I was present and I put a little input into their meeting. No one has gotten in touch with me since that meeting; prior to that meeting no one got in touch with me, either.
Q: What was your input?
A: There's an empty piece of property across the street on Pacific Avenue from the restaurant (the site of the former Sands casino now owned by Pinnacle), and when I first got here I was told that they were going to put a casino up across the street or hotel or something. Since I've been here, the group pulled out, announced they weren't going to do anything, and I think with the funds the CRDA has it should fill that with something that would be a plus for the community, some business that is viable for the economic growth of the community.
Q: You were once an aide to Rev. Al Sharpton. How did you get involved in doing that?
A: About 25 years ago, I meet Rev. Sharpton in New York City, and I thought I could be a vital part of his operation and getting the word out that he was doing more than just what the media was reporting, (which was) that he was engaging in buffoonery. He had a clear message, which was about social activism, helping the downtrodden, the people who didn't have a voice. So I wanted to help him get that message out and I ended up working for Rev. Sharpton for eight years.
Q: In 1990, you were here with him (in Atlantic City) protesting lack of opportunities for youth. Can you tell me more about that?
A: Steve Young, he had an organization called the Forgotten Youth. The casino industry had made a pact with the Atlantic City residents, the people who lived here. They said they would help them rebuild their community as well. They didn't live up to their promises, so we formed an alliance with Steve Young and the Forgotten Youth, and we took action by shutting down the expressway.
Q: That 1990 visit was your first to Atlantic City. What can you remember striking you in terms of your impression?
A: It always reminded me of Las Vegas with the bright lights, the casinos and the gambling. It's a fast-life type of place. The other thing that I remember it was like a Tale of Two Cities: the bright lights and the glitz and all of the money that the casinos were pumping in and making. And the other city was the poor. I got a chance to go into the ghetto or the urban areas of Atlantic City to see how black folks, how people of color were living. At that time, they were living in shacks, and it wasn't a pretty sight and so it enraged myself, along with Rev. Al Sharpton.
Q: You mentioned the tale of two cities. That kind of divisiveness, do you see any solutions?
A: I think that one of the solutions is for the city, or state, or CRDA, to go ahead and revitalize Kentucky Avenue, to show good faith that they intend to bridge that gap, or divide, here in Atlantic City. I think Steve Young's plan is a great plan, it's a tenacious plan. It has to start somewhere. One of the things in his plan is to put ... an African American library or bookstore here on Kentucky Avenue. A studio where young African Americans, Latinos can go to make music and see how it's done. I think that some of the things in his plan are great starters. CRDA should be able to say, ‘OK, yes, here is a million dollars, we are going to start, we are going to put this here.' I think that's how that divide can be bridged. Instead of promises, promises, promises ... instead of, ‘OK, we are going to do it soon, we'll do it soon.' Well, when?
When I came to Atlantic City and said I'm putting a restaurant here, people thought I was crazy. Well guess what, the restaurant is here, it's done and I welcome everyone to come. So it started with me being here. In Harlem, I opened up a restaurant (on Mothers Day 1999) on 116th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenue between Malcolm X Boulevard and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That area was drug-infested, sort of desolate, when I opened up a restaurant. It revitalized the community. Other people started to open up businesses, investors put high-rise structures up in that community when they saw that my business was viable, profitable. That's what needs to happen here in this area.
Q: What were some of the factors at play there that you think could be replicated here, that are actually within the control of local leaders, that could help facilitate the same kind of result? What did you see them doing there, that maybe you don't here, that kind of helped along what was a natural progression, or did not obstruct it?
A: One of the simple things that they did in New York that they don't really do here, is local officials, politicians, they came to my restaurant in New York. That's not something they really do here. They don't support it. You only see the politicians in the time they are running for re-election or whatever. There are a couple of politicians who do support my restaurant and I can name them really on one hand. Again, it has to start somewhere small. In New York, the clergy supported my business - as a whole, the clergy did.
Q: So it's sort of like the business leaders, the leaders in government and the religious community saw what their support could do, and really how critical it could be to that area ... what it would mean to fostering that (revival) along.
A: Absolutely, you couldn't have said it better than you said it.
Q: Do you think there's been progress (in Atlantic City)?
A: The casino industry, in my view, hasn't lived up to its responsibility and the promise they made to the residents of Atlantic City, the whole Atlantic City. They continue to build casinos, but the powers that be are not doing anything to help the residents of Atlantic City. For instance, the day before Thanksgiving, I fed 454 people who were hungry - not necessarily homeless - and any time you have those many people that come to be fed it's a more prevalent problem than people seem to think and believe.
Q: You opened in September 2010. What led you here?
A: Well, opportunity. This space was vacant two and half years ago, when I got here. It (had been ) vacant for a long time and my former landlord in New York owns this building and he told me about this space and we decided together to open up a restaurant so that something viable could be on this corner on this property.
Q: Why Atlantic City?
A: We have the ocean about a block and a half away, which is a natural cooling agent for our area, and I think that Atlantic City is second to Las Vegas, it's a great city. The question is, ‘Why not Atlantic City?' I think that there is so much opportunity here for people to engage in I shouldn't be the only one opening up a restaurant. I think there's opportunity for other people to do something as well. There's no ice cream store, as far as I know, in Atlantic City owned by African Americans. African Americans don't really own much of anything in Atlantic City, and I think that we should start to think about things and ways we can improve the city and improve ourselves in this town. So I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm a chef that cooks in a restaurant, so in order for me to cook in a restaurant, I have to work in one or open up one that I can work in myself, for myself.
Q: Were you aware of the vision for redeveloping Kentucky Avenue when you made the decision to come here?
Q: Now that you're here, can you speak to what, if any, involvement you have with guiding that initiative?
A: I'm not guiding any development on Kentucky Avenue. I think that you put a restaurant here that is a viable restaurant for the community and for the casino population as well. I am supporting the revitalization of Kentucky Avenue here in Atlantic City, as you said, led by Steve Young and the Polaris (Development) Group. I think what they are doing is very important, and I think it's something that is needed here in Atlantic City.
Q: To talk a bit more about the restaurant, I noticed you don't have menu items that are named for people anymore. Why did you do away with that?
A: It seemed to become a bit of a problem. When I came here to Atlantic City, I didn't know anyone, but I started to learn who everybody was, and it's something I've done in some of my past restaurants to try to include everyone in what I was doing. It seemed to be a problem here because the people who I did put on the menu, people who weren't on the menu had a problem with that, and it just became a big problem and a headache, so I decided to take all of those names off of the menu. I had a dish named after John Schultz and Gary Hill - people wanted to know why I had them on the menu and not Mar Hills. It was a problem, and I don't like too much controversy.
Q: In general, how have your expectations been met?
A: I am a chef. I am a restaurateur. I knew that building a restaurant at this economic time was sort of a crazy idea. I also know that the downturn can only last for so long, so sooner or later the economy has to rebound. I wanted to be in a place so that when that tide turns I'd be in place to serve the community.
Q: You've been here for a year, you've been here through a summer. Have you met your benchmarks?
A: I would be able to give you an educated answer after this summer season that's coming up on us. I know what I did the first year, so by the second season, I would be able to compare those numbers.
Q: Are you still in communication with Rev. Sharpton?
A: No, he's doing his thing and I'm doing my thing. I would love him to come here anytime to visit this restaurant, but, you know, he is doing his thing.
Q: Your views on Gov. Christie and what may be his flirtation with a national political career?
A: I like Gov. Chris Christie. He's done some great things for Atlantic City by creating the Tourism District, by infusing money back into Atlantic City, by using his power and influence as a governor to help to finish the building of the Revel, which will benefit everyone in the Tourism District. I particularly like his brash style of governing because you aren't going to get anywhere being nice in this town, in the state of New Jersey, nice guys are not going to finish first. I think he is doing a very good job.
On national politics, I'm going to back Obama again because I don't see anybody in the Republican field particularly strong enough. But (Christie) said what he is going to do and he does what he says, and that's all he can do. When (Jon) Corzine was governor, he didn't do much of anything. You draw the defining moments when you can remember what a person did, what their legacy is. I think Corzine's legacy is going to be that he got into a car accident because that's what I remember about Corzine and that's sad. I do know that governor Christie created a Tourism District for Atlantic City, and he is trying to do as much as he can do for the people of Atlantic Citiy. I believe he is going to do what he says he is going to do. I hope that he doesn't run for political office nationally because I think he would do a great disservice to this area because his work won't be finished. I think he should run for a second term and get the job done. I invited him to my restaurant. He was (here) announcing Mr. (John) Palmieri's position being the head of the CRDA, and I hope Gov. Christie keeps his promise to come to Redding's Restaurant next time he is in Atlantic City.
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