Business different at Kora’s Place
Published 12:00 am Monday, March 15, 2004
This is a war raging inside Lacornia Harris.
The businessman inside him knows how important the bottom line is, knows that to survive in this economy he must manage the small restaurant he and his wife Cora own with sound business principles and not allow himself to be swayed by anything as undependable as love or compassion.
But there is another side to Lacornia Harris, one that is often at odds with the business nature. Each day he prays for strength as he struggles to keep the two in balance.
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The stakes could not be higher. For Harris, it is a battle for his very soul.
Lacornia and Cora Harris are the owners of Kora’s Place, serving soul food and “the best burgers in town” near the center of First Avenue and East Pettus Street.
“This restaurant is in what we call ‘the’ hood,'” chuckles Harris, a physically imposing man with an infectious laugh. “Initially there was a fear on the part of many of my European brothers and sisters about even coming into this part of town, let along doing business here. But because of the demeanor and the attitude and the deportment of my employees, we’re beginning to overcome that to some degree. I feel like we have been able to cause a greater dialogue between blacks and whites in the four years we have been here.
“People tell me that I could make more money if we moved somewhere else, and that’s probably true. They also say that we’re in the wrong location, but that’s not true. I believe this is where God wants us to be.”
Harris is pastor at New Aimwell Missionary Baptist Church in Uniontown. He first answered the call to ministry while still serving in the Air Force. While reluctant to put into words his understanding of that sense of calling in his life, he describes it as incompleteness.”
Recalls Harris, “When I first began to feel the call I thought, ‘God can’t be calling me, not with my behavior, not with my attitude.’ But when you have it, it’s a feeling that something is missing in your life when you don’t do it.”
Harris is candid about his motivation for owning a restaurant. “I bought this restaurant to make money,” he says with that infectious laugh. “But I don’t mind telling you it’s kicking my behind right now, it’s kicking my behind.”
But profit is not the only reason Harris and his wife put in 12-hour days without drawing a salary. There is another reason, one that causes the businessman living inside him to wring his hands.
“All my life I’ve wanted to own a restaurant,” Harris says. “I grew up here in Marengo County and I remember places life Charlie’s Caf/, places that had a real impact on me. Those are the kind of place that helped folks. If a person needed a meal and didn’t have any money, Charlie’s would feed them until they got paid. They were there to make money, but they were also there to help folks.” Harris has brought that same philosophy, that same sense of ministry with him to Kora’s Place. Although he estimates that the restaurant could run efficiently with his wife, himself and three employees, Kora’s currently employs five people.
“We have had up to six,” he sighs, “but we’re pinching things then. Every nickel has to fall in the right slot.”
Harris is well aware that hiring more people than necessary makes no sense from an accounting standpoint – “but,” he adds, a smile playing across his face, “I’m not an accountant.”
“I believe this restaurant was given to us to help somebody,” he explains. “Cora and I don’t get paid. We pay the bills and we pay the employees. In the beginning there was an argument between my physical and my divine natures that went on for a short term – without the physical being the winner.”
There are not many days that some one does not come in to Kora’s Place and ask for something to eat, even though they are unable to pay. They are served just like any other customer. Knowing this, some of Harris’ regular customers will occasionally leave an extra $5 or $10 and tell him to use it to offset his costs of providing free meals. Several Sunday school classes in the area have taken up donations for that same purpose.
Few of the people who receive free meals ever return to pay Harris back. After four years he has long stopped expecting them to. Even so, much of the anguish of his inner businessman, the free meals continue.
“I have been a sucker,” he shrugs. “I have been a big sucker. I’ll give you the shirt off my back, but I have the other side of me too.”
There is, of course, another way of viewing Harris’ management practices. One for which there is no space in the tidy ledger sheets he keeps in the restaurant’s tiny office.
Tarsha Carter came to work at Kora’s Place about a year ago after recovering from a near-fatal auto accident. She recalls her first meeting with Harris. “When I applied for the job he asked me could I cook,” she says. “I told him, ‘Look at me! Look at the size of me! Can’t you tell I know how to cook?!”
The smile fades from Carter’s face and she grows suddenly serious. “It’s just like having your father here with you,” she says, lowering her voice. “It’s not just a job. If you’re down he’s someone you can talk to, someone who will try and help you.” Melissa Scott came to work at Kora’s Place two years ago. “I had had a baby and lost it, she says. “I’d been out of work for about a year. I didn’t have a place to live. My life had become … difficult.”
Scott says the Harrises not only gave her a job, they also rented a nearby house for her to live in. “I can’t describe what they’ve done for me,” she says. “They’ve really helped me. I think I’m a better person now.”
It is not unusual for people to come in to Kora’s Place and quietly ask Harris to pray for a loved one or some situation they are currently experiencing.
Observes Harris, “A lot of people are starved for someone to listen to their hurts, and that that has nothing to do with color. I like to laugh and joke and have a big time when I’m here, but when it comes to the ministry side I’m all business.”
Harris is aware that many people would view his style of management as good ministry and bad business. He fights that same battle with himself each day.
“There’s a war going on when people want to prosper and grow according to the world and when they want to operate according to divine principle. There’s a battle going on there,” Harris says. “It appears that society’s winning – I say it ‘appears’ that way. And don’t I love that word ‘appears.’
“But right will always prevail. I may take a beating, but it will prevail.”
Photos show Lacornia Harris barbecuing by himself. In the group shot use the one where he’s second from right.
From left, Cora Harris, Michael Paige, Eva Hudson, Melissa Scott, Lacornia Harris and Tarsha Carter.