It took Timothy Martin just eight years to go from gas-station chef to soul-food restaurant mogul.
Growing up in Norfolk, Va., Martin and his 10 siblings eagerly anticipated the dinners their father, Ernest, prepared. “He’d work eight hours a day, come home and by 4:35 p.m., he was cooking,” Martin said, recalling platters of savory meatloaf, crispy fish and juicy pork chops.
As a teenager, Timothy courted his girlfriend, Ernestine, now his wife of 26 years, sitting in the kitchen as she fried chicken for her family. Later, as a husband and father of two sons, Martin became the cook. He earned high praise from his colleagues at Dominion Chrysler Plymouth — where he was named top salesman for 12 of his 17 years on staff — when he shared with them leftovers of his family meals.
“I used recipes from my father, who makes the best fried chicken you ever tasted,” he said. “My macaroni and cheese came from my mother. There are only two days a year when she cooks — on Thanksgiving and Christmas — and she only makes one thing: macaroni and cheese.”
Martin entered the restaurant game in 2008 in Virginia Beach when he and his brother, Delano, opened Martin’s Kitchen. When they parted ways two years later over “different visions,” Martin reached an agreement with a BP gas station/convenience store to lease their small kitchen for $1,600 per month.
“People would come in to pay for their gas and smell that chicken frying and those pork chops and come right on over,” Martin said, laughing. “I sold a main dish and two sides for $6.95 or $7.95. That’s about the same price as now.”
These days, the entrepreneur-chef draws crowds to three Martin’s Soul Food restaurants in the Hampton Roads area: his flagship, on Northampton Blvd., Virginia Beach; his headquarters restaurant on Virginia Beach Blvd. in Norfolk; and a store on Bainbridge Blvd. in Chesapeake. A franchise eatery bearing his name is located in Gloucester. He is opening a new restaurant in Norfolk next month and another next summer.
Martin’s three restaurants serve an average of 550 meals per day on weekdays and 850 on weekends. He employs 18 people. His business grew exponentially several years ago after his first restaurant was featured in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
“Business just exploded,” he said.
His partner in the three restaurants he owns is Cynthia Terry, a former customer and supermarket training specialist who manages the Northampton restaurant.
Terry began patronizing Martin’s Kitchen because of the chitterlings — “They’re so good you don’t even want to use hot sauce!” — and the customer service.
The Martin brothers would talk and joke with her son, Courtney, now 15, then painfully shy. “They would really draw him out,” Terry said. “It was so nice that they would take time like that with a customer.”
Martin endured two bumps in the road on his rise. One was the zoning-related closure of a Portsmouth nightclub, where he ran an eatery in the 1980s. The second was the stroke he suffered in October 2014 while putting away groceries in one of his restaurants.
“Two days later, I was back testifying about it,” Martin said. He works six days a week.
Martin credits his work ethic to Ernest Martin, now 83, who operated a forklift for 48 years and never missed a day; and his business savvy to his mother, Orla, 79, once a retail-sales star. His father also served as founding pastor at the non-denominational Full Gospel Church of Deliverance in Norfolk for 50 years. When he retired in 2013, Martin became the pastor.
Al Smith, the former owner of the Chrysler dealership where Martin worked, recently reunited with his former salesman while visiting Hampton Roads from Arizona, where he now lives. Smith said he was “delighted” to see the success that Martin has achieved.
“I’m not surprised that he opened a restaurant,” said Smith, remembering Martin’s cooking.
Martin said he feels blessed that his business is thriving.
“A reporter called and said July 6 is National Fried Chicken Day and they wanted to feature us,” he said. “I’m honored.”
Martin said he next wants to advocate for black businesses and share his knowledge with aspiring entrepreneurs. And he wants to spread the message that African-Americans should support black businesses.
“If every black person would support one black business each week, we could really impact the economies of our communities,” he said. “We could employ more people, and that would help our children and families. Our communities and this whole nation would be different.” •