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Feeding the Family: Local restaurant seeks to help youth become productive citizens

By Christina Lane
Dec. 27, 2017 at 7:05 a.m.
Updated Dec. 27, 2017 at 7:05 a.m.

Kevin Hawkins at Devine Catering's Diana location Friday, December 8, 2017. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Kevin Hawkins calls South Longview his home.

It’s where he grew up. It’s where he and his family established the first iteration of the wildly popular Divine Catering restaurant. And today, it’s where he continues to work with youth in the community, encouraging them to realize their true potential and the opportunities that await them.

“For me, it’s about not being a product of your environment. Kids today – you can’t think you can’t make it just because you grew up on the southside. There are so many opportunities today for kids and I try to help them realize that,” Hawkins said.

For Hawkins, South Longview has been filled with opportunities that shaped him into the person he is today.

Hawkins grew up on 13th Street. Some people might call it a rough neighborhood; for him, it’s just home. The son of Carolyn and Howard Hawkins, he grew up in a large family. Hawkins has an older sister, ShaRundha Hawkins, and three brothers – Ronald Hawkins, Howard Hawkins Jr. and Carl Hawkins.

He attended Longview High School. An athlete, he grew up playing football (he was a quarterback) and basketball (he was a shooting guard). He’d watched one of his older brothers play on the 1992 Lobos basketball team that won a state championship, and for him, basketball overshadowed football a bit. But regardless of the sport, athletics opened up opportunities for him.

“Sports cross boundary lines. You make friends with your teammates, and they live all over. So you get exposed to visiting homes on the north side and the east side – all over. It forces you to get outside your comfort zone,” he said.

After graduating from Longview High School in 1996, he attended Southwest Texas Junior College where he earned an associate’s degree.

Hawkins worked at various companies and in 2009, he was employed at AAON when a recession resulted in oil field workers – including his brother, Howard – having hours cut and, for some, being laid off. Hawkins said he had been thinking about opening a restaurant for a while and in 2009, the timing seemed right for a change. He said he approached his brother about opening a restaurant; his brother had been to school for culinary arts and had worked in the industry.

The idea for a restaurant was simple: Hawkins wanted to share his family’s passion with others.

“My family is a cooking family,” he said. “I wanted people to taste the same food we grew up eating.”

So Hawkins put together a business plan and by Dec. 6, 2009, he had obtained a business license and a small building in the neighborhood in which he grew up.

At the corner of 12th and Horaney streets, Divine Catering began small with a focus on delivery.

Hawkins kept working at AAON and had friends who worked nearby at the former LeTourneau Technologies. He approached the HR departments at both companies, which offered employees lunch breaks of just 20-25 minutes, with an idea. Hawkins wanted to take down food orders at work and have home-cooked meals delivered.

“I wanted to be the Domino’s Pizza of soul food,” Hawkins laughed.

He put together a makeshift menu. With a barbecue pit, his brother cooked up meals in the morning and delivered them to the companies. When Hawkins got off work at AAON in the afternoon, he’d take his turn working the restaurant.

“We made pretty good money before we even really opened the doors to the restaurant,” he said. “But, at some point, we realized we were serving the kind of food that people don’t want to eat in a takeout box.”

Soul food. The words alone evoke a thought of families gathered around a table, talking about their day while enjoying a home-cooked meal.

So, the focus shifted a bit away from delivery and more toward a brick and mortar restaurant. The small building at 12th and Horaney had few tables (its total occupancy was 16) – and the small space was fine until LeTourneau University students discovered it.

Located in South Longview on Mobberly Avenue, LeTourneau University is home to hundreds of students and faculty members from both near and far. Many seek to dine at nearby restaurants that are conveniently located close to the campus. One day, a student walked through the doors at Divine Catering. Then that student came back, bringing another. Before long, the restaurant was seeing college teams come in. As employees caught wind of the restaurant from students, faculty eventually asked if Divine Catering would support LeTourneau’s YAC card – a card that features businesses that offer discounts to students and faculty.

“When we got on the YAC card, business exploded,” Hawkins said.

That business spread into the city as police officers and firefighters discovered the restaurant, and soon Divine Catering was providing catering services to both agencies for holiday parties and special events.

“We have built really good relationships with them,” Hawkins said.

In January 2012, Divine Catering moved to Mobberly Avenue where it is still located today. The larger building allowed plenty of space for the restaurant’s growing clientele and it provided room for people to sit down and have meals together. Hawkins brother and mother cooked the food while his father, who retired in 2012 from Lone Star Steel (now U.S. Steel), served as the greeter. Hawkins father passed away in May 2013 and he said he still feels the loss every day, both in his personal life and at the restaurant.

“My dad, he could talk to anybody. He could hold a conversation with anyone. He didn’t meet a stranger,” Hawkins recalled. “He’d talk about sports, he’d talk about life; he talked a lot. He taught me how important relationships are. One of the perks when you work the floor (at the restaurant) is you get to know your customers. When you come through the doors at Divine Catering, you should feel like you’re coming to eat with family. I learned that from my father.”

The good food combined with the hospitality kept the restaurant growing.

Today, Hawkins has independently established a new location – Divine Catering and Restaurant – in Diana. With a new business partner, he’s also working to bring a food truck to Longview. He hopes to launch the food truck by Jan. 1.

“I feel like the restaurant has become a pillar of the community now,” he said. “And, it’s all based on my mother’s recipes and what my brother has added to them.”

With Divine Catering on Mobberly Avenue and with his mother still residing in the family home, it’s frequent to see Hawkins in South Longview. Giving back to his community has become an important focus for him, especially when it concerns children. Hawkins is a member of the Longview NAACP; he’s served on the boards for East Texas Literacy Council and Thrive 360; he’s very involved mentoring youth through My Brother’s Keeper; and he actively serves as an urban specialist with Partners in Prevention’s Hope for Youth.

Through the organizations, especially Hope for Youth and My Brother’s Keeper, Hawkins hope is that young people on the southside will look at him as someone who grew up walking the same streets as them and who overcame his environment to be a successful businessman and who gives back to his community. In short, he wants to help kids just like himself lead productive lives despite any obstacle they might feel they face.

To that end, he hired three young men who were members of the TYB gang to work for him, bringing them under his wing.

“I didn’t know how ‘bad’ of a person they might be,” he said, noting that the term ‘gang member’ carries with it a certain connotation, “but I wanted to give them an opportunity.”

When the boys came to work for him, Hawkins said, he watched them joke around and play and he took opportunities to get to know them on a personal level. But he also taught them structure.

“When you’re on the job, you have to treat it like a job,” he said. “There were things they didn’t understand. They had never worked a job, so they had no idea.”

The more structure he gave them, the more they seemed to crave, he said. He found the right balance between pushing but not too much so that he didn’t push them away.

Today, of those three young men, one is attending Kilgore College, one works for the city and one works at another restaurant. He said they still keep in touch with him, turning to him for advice and support.

Hawkins also regularly visits schools to work with students in the classroom. Through Thrive 360, he works with boys on life skills, such as how to tie a tie or how to present themselves for a job interview, but he also talks to them about “real life.”

Through My Brother’s Keeper, Hawkins said, he’s taken youths to Memphis, where they visited – among many locations – the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. He wants them to understand history and he wants them to understand culture and he wants them to see a world that extends far beyond the edges of South Longview.

“The ultimate goal is to get them to be productive citizens,” he said.

What the future holds for Hawkins isn’t certain but he plans to keep working with youth and he plans to keep growing Divine Catering and Restaurant. He’s been working to grow the Diana location, which he says is kind of like starting from scratch again as he works to build new relationships up in that community. And the future is certain to hold a food truck in store for East Texans to enjoy.

“We’re trying to grow with the trends, and food trucks are huge in Longview right now,” Hawkins said. “It’s a good craze, and I think it’s going to keep growing.”

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