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Overcoming homelessness and prison, Columbia restaurateur looks to give back with new cafe

Activity swirled around Johnny Davis on Tuesday morning in the Sunrise Cafe on Main Street in Columbia, as the business formally celebrated its grand opening.

Lights from TV cameras from local stations flooded the space. The sound of chatter and laughter reverberated off the walls as customers, friends and well-wishers celebrated the day. Local elected officials and business leaders shook hands and touted the opening.

But at the height of the revelry, Davis had something else on his mind.

“I’ve got to go get this macaroni in the oven,” he said.

While Tuesday marked the formal opening of Sunrise, located at 1801 Main St. at Jefferson Square, the business already has been serving customers for a few months. The cafe serves breakfast all day, along with a host of other offerings, including burgers, fried chicken, hot dogs, red velvet cake and more.

But for Davis, 69, the Sunrise Cafe is not only a vessel through which he can provide downtown Columbia with breakfast and lunch. It also stands as a testament to second chances and proof that the sun, indeed, can rise.

Davis isn’t shy about sharing the story of his life journey, one that was filled with setbacks. He tells of being homeless in Columbia in the mid-1980s and being “strung out” on drugs. There were arrests for drug offenses through the years, and he eventually landed in prison with a life sentence for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. President Barack Obama later commuted that sentence, and Davis was released in 2018.

In the years since leaving jail, Davis has set about putting his life back together. He studied criminal justice at Strayer University. He got married, and his wife, Yvette, helps him run the cafe. And now, through the cafe, he is looking to give others an opportunity, as he employs workers from Columbia’s homeless community at the restaurant.

“I’ve been in God’s hands,” Davis told The State. “I know I’ve been blessed. I just don’t want to mess it up. I can do right by doing right by people, and making people better.”

Davis said he’s been into food and cooking for 50 years. A Navy veteran originally from Florence, he had an earlier version of Sunrise Cafe on Monticello Road in the early 2000s.

Davis said the Main Street cafe currently has a staff of seven people, several of whom do not have permanent housing. He said it is important to him to give others a chance to make their situation better.

“I don’t care where you came from,” Davis said. “If you want a job, and you want to work, I want to hire you. And I’ve got a good staff working back there with me. ... I want them to understand, ‘I’ve been where you’ve been.’”

Columbia City Councilwoman Dr. Aditi Bussells attended the grand opening of Sunrise and lauded Davis for his work and effort to hire homeless people.

“This is more than restaurant,” Bussells said. “It is symbolizing the beginning of providing opportunities to people who just need a second chance.”

Matt Kennell, who leads the City Center Partnership that advocates for property owners in downtown’s Main Street District, said he appreciates Davis’ efforts to give back to the community through the Sunrise Cafe.

Kennell also said the restaurant is a solid addition to Main Street, which has seen a raft of revitalization in the last decade-plus. Once nearly abandoned, Main Street north of the State House is now filled with restaurants, bars, hotels, shops and more. That development is starting to push farther north, toward Elmwood Avenue.

“His timing is excellent,” Kennell said of Sunrise’s opening. “As downtown and Main Street expand to the north, with all the great things happening on Bull Street, on Elmwood Avenue, in the North Main Street area, this connects.”