Alabama Is Now Home to the Only Teen-Run Restaurant in the U.S.
Through his latest endeavor, That's My Dog Jr., Charles Lee continues to empower and protect Montgomery's inner-city youth.
That's My Dog Jr. is an undeniably cool place to eat. Everything on the menu—from the hot dogs to the onion rings—is served in dog bowls lined in wax paper. But that's not why the new Montgomery, Alabama, restaurant is making headlines. It's because everyone who works at That's My Dog Jr. is a teenager.
The general manager, for example, Zanya Anderson, is 16 years old, AL.com reports. Her assistant manager and marketing manager also are 16. In all, 20 teenagers are employed at the eatery which bills itself as only teen-run restaurant in the country.
"I'll say it as humbly as I can," Anderson told AL.com. "I think (the customers) love the food. I like it as well. The community has been very supportive, and I love that."
That's My Dog Jr. is a third location of That's My Dog, joining the original food cart in downtown Montgomery and a full-service restaurant nearby.
Charles Lee started That's My Dog in 2012. He is also the executive director of That's My Child, an after-school mentoring program that offers no-cost after-school activities for pre-teens and teens. That's My Dog Jr. is located on the That's My Child campus and is staffed by a select group of students. The employees draw paychecks and the remainder of the proceeds go towards the youth programs. The restaurant serves lunch weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. When it closes, the teenagers have a safe place to hang out. An employee told Southern Living that daytime staff are either homeschooled or attend virtual school.
To say that Lee had a rough start in life would be an understatement. He was born to parents who were drug addicts. His mother didn't even put a name on his birth certificate. Lee was just 11 years old when he joined a gang. After being shot in the chest at 13, he told AL.com that when he woke up in the hospital, his 7th-grade teacher was the only one there for him.
Eventually Lee ended up in jail, which is where he says he did a lot of soul-searching about his purpose in life. It was in jail that he believes that God spoke to him. "He said, ‘I need you to go back and redirect the path of young people who are making some of the same decisions you did,'" he recalled.
So, 11 years ago, he moved back to Montgomery—where he lived during most of high school—and bought a house. He started working as a basketball coach at Chisholm Elementary School. "I was trying to make an impact," he told AL.com. "I thought I was doing what God wanted me to do." It wasn't long before he found his first mentee. His first of many.
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Lee said that the idea for the restaurant came because "overwhelmingly, our kids wanted to work." He described working at That's My Dog Jr. as "a step to empowering students."
"It's an experience no one can take from them," he added. "At 16, I was never granted an opportunity like this."
"If you don't have a purpose, you're living for nothing," Lee concluded. "I had two felonies, no high school diploma and no business experience, and he blessed me with this whole campus and several locations of That's My Dog."