Chef makes dream reality

State aid helps paraplegic man start takeout business

He returned to school

Program promotes independence for disabled people

May 08, 2000|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Almost 20 years after a swimming pool injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, James Lewis is finally realizing his dream -- running his own business.

With support from the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, the lifelong Annapolitan opened My Chef, a catering and gourmet food takeout. Lewis held a grand opening Friday.

"I would never have gotten here without their help," Lewis said this week, sitting outside My Chef in Bay Ridge Plaza.

The department supported Lewis financially when he went back to school, helped him develop a business plan and informed him of possible financial resources. Through the department's Reach Independence Through Self-Employment (RISE) Program, Lewis was able to get the funding and business advice to open My Chef.

For two years, RISE has offered Maryland residents, specifically those with disabilities, assistance in opening a business and funding. Statewide, about 30 businesses have started through the program.

Lewis' restaurant is the third in Anne Arundel County, said Jennifer Leen, a spokeswoman for the program. Six others are in the process of developing a business plan.

"James Lewis is probably the most successful in the county," Leen said, adding that most businesses are home-based, such as that of a woman who transcribes medical dictations for area doctors.

Lewis opened March 13 with four full-time and 10 part-time employees, and has been revamping his menu since, trying to find what works. Items such as gourmet asparagus are out, and mashed potatoes and stuffed pork chops are in.

"People like comfort food," Lewis said.

Lewis has been interested in food preparation for years. He was in his second year at the Culinary Institute of America when he suffered a neck injury after diving into a swimming pool and hitting the bottom.

Lewis worked in different restaurants in Annapolis for the next several years until he was able to purchase a van to go back to school. The Department of Rehabilitation Services helped him make the vehicle wheelchair accessible.

Lewis attended Anne Arundel County Community College and the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1995 as a registered dietitian.

After coming back to Annapolis, Lewis, with his wife, Cheryl, began plans for a business.

The RISE program kicked in $15,000 and Lewis was able to get a loan from Mellon Business-Bank to open My Chef. Lewis said it's cost more than $300,000 to get his business started.

Despite competition from local supermarkets and other establishments, Lewis said there's a need for a gourmet food carryout in Annapolis.

"There are illiterate cooks out there who don't know how to really cook," Lewis said. "Cooking has become more of a hobby."

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