Chioke Vaughn has always dreamed of opening her own restaurant. COVID-19 tried to delay that goal.
Vaughn, chef and owner and co-owner Nina Ruff opened Da ‘Lunch Plate in Dorsey in March 2020, almost a week before the arrival of COVID-19.
“We knew COVID was here, but we didn’t know how severe it is,” said Ruff.
Born and raised in East Tupelo, Vaughn has always loved cooking. Coming from a cooking family, he said his passion for food was always there. Before he even opened his restaurant, he cooked and delivered plates of food to people he knew.
Turning this passion into a business seemed only natural.
“It was a dream. I wanted to run my own restaurant,” said Vaughn. “I’m more of a Southern-style cook, I like to cook a lot of homemade things, from scratch. I just go into the kitchen and just cook.”
The name, Da ‘Lunch Plate, comes from Vaughn, who prefers to cook “everything you put on your lunch plate” than to stick to a specific menu. Vaughn describes his restaurant as a fish and steak house that cooks dishes such as grilled or fried shrimp, steak, pork chops, chicken and broccoli and serves soul food on Sundays.
Vaughn and Ruff met in high school and got back together 19 years later through a mutual friend. Now, eight years after that reunification, the two decided to support each other in all their endeavors, said Ruff.
This also included the opening of a restaurant.
A native of Dorsey and Mooreville, Ruff knew her hometown was a good place to open a restaurant. People who live in small communities don’t have many options to eat out. Not unless you want to travel.
“I wasn’t sure at first, but people were allowed to eat, and I know a lot of people in this area go to Tupelo, Fulton, Amory because there is nothing right in town, but now that people know us, it’s picking up speed We’re out here, ”Vaughn said.
The original plan was to open a food truck, but when a building became vacant, Ruff said this was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up.
Those first few months were mostly focused on renovation and survival. With their savings, Vaughn and Ruff began buying items for the restaurant. Shipping was delayed due to COVID-19: all of their equipment arrived late and they struggled to get their hands on basic supplies at all. Texas toast, for example.
Da ‘Lunch Plate was just a clam, mainly used as a fry as the restaurant was gutted, the roof repaired, and the building painted inside and out. In May, Da ‘Lunch Plate had a gentle opening that was only offered for take away.
However, in late 2020, cases of COVID-19 increased, mainly due to holiday gatherings. Business in the young restaurant slowed down enormously, said Ruff.
She feared they would have to close their doors.
“I was nervous,” she said. “I was nervous about the effects of COVID, we could stay open about that. It was a really, really exhausting time. “
But they survived those lean times, and business has since recovered. When people started to dine in person, Vaughn and Ruff made sure that Lysol and hand sanitizer were distributed in every room and on the tables.
The opening of the restaurant taught Ruff and Vaughn a lot. Cooking is easy, but learning W-2, taxes and what it takes to run a business as a first-time owner wasn’t, the two said.
Like many restaurants, Da ‘Lunch Plate had trouble hiring people. Ruff lives in Olive Branch and works as a warden at a Veterans Affairs Hospital, but tries to come when she is needed. Vaughn, who has two other jobs, is used to sleeping only a few hours, but the opening of the restaurant was pushed to its limits.
Vaccinations opened up the business further. Ruff, who is vaccinated, said it was much more comforting to be frank as she hears more customers and other people being vaccinated as well. However, overall vaccination rates within the state remain low. Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, according to the Mississippi Department of Health, with just 30% of the population being fully vaccinated as of June 23. In Itawamba County, where Dorsey is located, the vaccination rate is lower: only 24% of the population there are fully vaccinated.
Despite challenges, Da ‘Lunch Plate managed to be successful. It was worth it for Ruff to open up people excited to have another local restaurant in a rural area where there aren’t many to choose from.
“It’s good to hear that,” she says. “Then you see a lot of old classmates and people who knew me as a young girl or knew my grandparents, and that goes a long way.”
The restaurant currently has five employees, all of whom are local. Ruff hopes the restaurant will keep growing so they can hire more people and give them the opportunity to work in their community.
For Vaughn, the goal is to give back to the community and maybe inspire young people who want to cook. He hopes to be able to work full-time in the restaurant at some point. Once the restaurant is established, its next goal is to offer a scholarship fund to local schools.
“I want to do the Dorsey community restaurant,” said Vaughn.