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Entrepreneurs: Vicksburg has been the perfect environment to start a business

Each morning, Tim Sanford wakes up before dawn and heads to his barbecue restaurant on Clay Street. The 46-year-old father of three fires up the wood smoker and begins cooking ribs, sausages, brisket and other meats that form the menu of Tim’s Smokehouse BBQ.

Not long after Sanford starts cooking, De’Jonae Curtis wakes up and gets ready for her home school classes. The 10-year-old begins her job later in the day when she bakes cupcakes and intricately-designed specialty cakes for Dee’s Baby Cakes, the stand she owns in the Vicksburg Mall.

Sanford and Curtis are on opposite ends of the business spectrum — one branching out and expanding, the other learning the ins and outs at an incredibly young age — but they both are among the new businesses that are surviving and thriving in Vicksburg during a difficult year for the restaurant industry.

“Vicksburg is a town that takes care of its own,” said Jennifer Sanford, Tim’s wife. “We get proud of the days we can put that sign up that says ‘sold out.’ Thank you, Vicksburg.”

 

Catering to cooking

Tim Sanford didn’t set out into adulthood with the goal of opening a restaurant. He learned how to cook some things by watching his father, a talented backyard pitmaster who worked the grill at family gatherings but only started cooking himself to try and make some ribs for his mother.

“I messed up a lot of food,” he said with a laugh. “I made ribs after ribs after ribs until I got it right.”

Eventually, Sanford taught himself enough to become a very good cook — good enough to open his own catering business about seven years ago. Years of cooking barbecue for weddings, birthdays and family reunions gave him the confidence and customers to need a more permanent base of operations, and in September 2019 he opened Tim’s Smokehouse BBQ at 1713 Clay St., at the corner of Clay and Fifth North streets.

In addition to barbecue favorites like ribs and pulled pork, Sanford cooks up batches of soul food, beans and rice, jambalaya, or “whatever the customers want.” The restaurant started small but has since expanded to serve lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., unless the day’s batch of food sells out sooner.

“I opened here to have a commercial kitchen for catering, and then we served lunch plates, and then that turned into a restaurant,” Sanford said. “A lot of people like the barbecue, but we also smoke meats. We’re doing more varieties than anybody else. We do brisket, pulled pork, sausage, you name it.”

Alongside the restaurant sits a large wood smoker and a pile of small logs to feed it. Tim’s Smokehouse BBQ has generated a devoted clientele of downtown city workers and those from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilities in town. Business took a hit when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, but appears to have weathered the storm. Sanford said he has catering jobs lined up through the end of the year, and the full tables inside the restaurant have been replaced by a steady stream of takeout customers.

“I think I enjoy being able to work for myself. But seeing people eating my food and smiling is satisfying,” Sanford said.

The Sanfords have also turned the restaurant into a family business. Tim and Jennifer’s son, 21-year-old Tim Jr., helps his father cook the meat. Their 23-year-old daughter Ebone is a student at Mississippi College and works on the marketing side of things. Linda Sanford, Tim’s sister, works part-time on the weekends.

“Tim was able to find everybody’s strengths and cultivate a business,” Jennifer Sanford said. “Everybody does their thing.”

 

A young entrepreneur

Rebecca Curtis vividly remembers the night her daughter, De’Jonae, came to her in tears while having a personal crisis.

“She was asking, ‘Why don’t I have a business? What is my gift?’” Rebecca recalled.

Well, part of it is that De’Jonae was only 9 years old. Now that she’s 10, De’Jonae has found the answer to both questions.

De’Jonae is the owner of Dee’s Baby Cakes, a bake shop in the Vicksburg Mall that sells an assortment of cakes, desserts, and 20 flavors of cupcakes. The stand opened in February 2020 and now sells nearly 250 cupcakes and several custom cakes per week. De’Jonae does all the baking.

“I think I’ve come a long way, to think I started when I was 9. I can do anything I put my mind to,” De’Jonae said.

De’Jonae’s parents, Rebecca and Tommy Curtis discovered her love of baking almost by accident. Tommy tried to record a basketball game on the family’s DVR, only to discover his daughter had filled it with more than 100 cooking shows.

De’Jonae devoured each episode like one of her tasty cupcakes, learning baking techniques and recipes. Her parents both said they were shocked to find out the depth of their daughter’s knowledge.

“She made a 7-Up pound cake and I was going to have a bite just to humor her, but we ended up eating the whole thing. It was good,” Tommy Curtis said with a laugh.

Rebecca Curtis posted about her daughter’s baking success on Facebook, and from that, a business was born. Orders for more than four dozen cupcakes came in, and soon the family decided to add to its business portfolio.

The Curtis family — Rebecca, Tommy, De’Jonae, and their sons Christian and Tommy Jr. — own several small businesses, ranging from the cupcake stand to a gym, tax preparation firm, music production and graphic design. Christian and De’Jonae also have a monetized YouTube channel with more than 40,000 subscribers.

All of them have helped make Dee’s Baby Cakes a success. Rebecca assists with the business side of things while teaching De’Jonae the basics of running it. Christian helps in the kitchen and also assists with marketing and signage.

“Our whole family is entrepreneurs. My grandma had a restaurant,” De’Jonae said.

Rebecca Curtis said the goal of Dee’s Baby Cakes is to give De’Jonae some spending money and her first taste of business experience. The hours can vary depending on De’Jonae’s school and activity schedule, but online orders are taken at DeesBabyCakes.com.

“I’m looking at it as teaching her how to become a successful entrepreneur,” Rebecca said. “We make just enough money for her to get her nails done and buy some outfits. As long as the bills are paid and she’s getting the skills to be on her own, we’re good.”

Despite some limitations on the current business model because of her age, Vicksburg’s youngest business owner has big dreams for the future.

“I want Dee’s to be a franchise one day,” De’Jonae said. “Kids can do anything they set their mind to. You can be the biggest pop star ever if you work hard. I want to set an example for kids in the whole entire world. They can dream as big as they want.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured sports reporters in the paper's 137-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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