- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Mary Blackmon strolls up to the crowd around the food truck with the bearing of a queen. Even bundled up for a bitterly cold morning, she is clearly a beauty and is greeted like one with hugs and kisses and loads of “lookin’ good!”

Around the truck - which has “American Lunch. Yes this really is a free lunch” emblazoned along its side - the scent of red beans and rice perfumes the air. Volunteers warmly congratulate Blackmon when she tells them she’s winning her cancer battle. Accepting one of the 200 lunches they will serve between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., she slips off her gray woolen cap and runs a hand across her bare scalp.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday since September, the truck rolls into the 500 block of M.L. King Boulevard where several low-income residential towers flank a park-like square. The free lunches are hot soup or jambalaya, bread and tea, all made in the upscale 5 Bar restaurant on the North Shore. Tower residents and nearby homeless who gather for meals say the congeniality warms them as much as the soup.

“This is a little social hour where I get to know some good people who lift me up when the job hunt gets hard,” says Terrence Durrell, who’s staying at a shelter while working as a day laborer. “I’m new to Chattanooga, but this is like lunch with friends. The smiles and their interest keep me going when the world feels cold.”

Volunteers from the 5 Bar staff make the meals, load the soup tanks and coolers with tea and water then drive from North Chattanooga to MLK.

“It cost $25,000 to buy the truck and about $700 a month to keep the program going,” says restaurant co-owner Cris Eddings.

Yet the name of the restaurant, a simple number 5, is so small on the truck it’s easy to miss. Eddings and his co-owner Charles Morgan III - whose buddies include Wild West literary legends Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane and super chef Mario Batali - cling to stealth generosity earnestly, almost weirdly.

“It’s kind of like the law of karma; I believe if you are doing good things and doing good work, the right people will find you. We don’t advertise, ever,” says Morgan on the phone from Destin, Fla., where he owns Harbor Docks restaurant, which also has a free lunch truck.

Morgan also owns restaurants in Knoxville and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and each has a free meal truck inscribed with the same motto, “American Lunch.” Morgan says he was fond of a little hippie-owned restaurant in Atlanta with that name. But for him, the words have become a metaphor for the frontier American spirit “of giving someone who’s had some hard luck a helping hand, friendly conversation while sharing a hot meal as equals,” he says.

“That may not be what some current political rhetoric describes as the American spirit, but that’s what it is to me,” he adds.

Morgan’s philanthropic spirit was inspired by his late father, renowned civil rights attorney Charles Morgan, Jr., who successfully defended Muhammad Ali after the boxing champ argued his Islamic beliefs exempted him from being drafted to fight in Vietnam. He also defended Georgia representative Julian Bond when Bond was denied his seat in the state legislature after making anti-war statements about Vietnam.

His dad argued civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court nine times, including the landmark 1964 case, Reynolds v. Sims, which established the principle of “one man, one vote,” helping to end the gerrymandering that gave greater political power to rural legislators who controlled the Alabama Legislature. And he gave a famous 1963 speech to a Republican businessmen’s club in Birmingham the day after a racist bombing killed four girls in a black church.

His son was only seven years old at the time, but he clearly remembers the death threats, obscene phone calls and mass shunning of his family that ensued, forcing them out of Birmingham.

“I was never really tempted to go to law school and I opened Harbor Docks so my friends and me could have a place to drink beer and eat oysters,” Morgan says.

But once he opened the restaurant, he discovered how much power a successful business gave him to do some good in a community. His annual free Thanksgiving dinner mingled homeless and impoverished Destin residents with the affluent. The latter could donate at the dinner to charity, and the event raises tens of thousands of dollars for Habitat for Humanity and the local food bank.

Cris Eddings was just a boy when Morgan hired Eddings’ mother, a sushi chef, to come to Destin. Then Morgan hired Cris to manage his Tuscaloosa bistro before making him a business partner when they launched 5 Bar last year. The restaurant’s ceiling is hung with 30 distinctly different chandeliers, from a crazy boho pile of magenta and ice-white crystals to iron Gothic rings in tiers. Walls are covered with family photos and local artists’ work.

Eddings lives in a condo above the restaurant. His neighbor, Muriel Rosen, has become a loyal truck volunteer. On a recent freezing Friday morning, she joins bartenders Logan Whitlow and Jake Brown and server Katie Denham in the truck.

A crowd braves the weather to meet the truck. Rosen looks elegant in a fur-trimmed gray parka, white hair swept under a tortoiseshell band. An elderly man confides he has a crush on Rosen and is unfazed after being told she is married.

“Can’t keep me from dreaming,” he replies with a wink.

Brown wears a T-shirt and no jacket or sweater. The truck is unheated but Brown jumps out to unfold the awning to protect the crowd.

“When any one of our employees racks up 100 hours of volunteer work at a local charity, I give them a check for $1,000,” Eddings says, adding that both Brown and Logan earned that bonus last year. “It can be any charity that’s close to their hearts - a homeless shelter, the no-kill animal shelter, a church food pantry. I figure if we reward goodness, we’ll get and keep good people.”

An elderly woman with cerebral palsy navigates her wheelchair across the icy parking lot and asks for extra seafood gumbo to bring back to friends. Eddings worries Boynton Towers residents in wheelchairs might not be able to get up the slope to the truck, so he takes a tray of gumbo and tea to the Towers’ rec room. Men stop playing dominoes and ladies stop watching TV to greet him happily.

Food truck regular Billy Johnson is a 12-year Boynton Tower resident. As a retired Waffle House and Holiday Inn restaurant chef, he was curious to see 5 Bar. He walked all the way to the North Shore to visit it.

“I brought $5 for food, but Cris wouldn’t let me spend it; he had the chef fix me lunch for free. The chef, who is really young, came out and we chatted about cooking,” Johnson says. “They treated me like a celebrity.”

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com

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