They pulled up to the departures gate, father and son, one day after the best vacation of their lives, in the middle of the best year of their lives.
Together, their family had set the foundation for a restaurant empire in less than eight months. Lulu’s Maryland Style Chicken and Seafood is one of Charlotte’s brightest success stories of 2020: With lines out the door day and night, the Black-owned and Black-operated restaurant that cleared two commas in revenue in year one is set to open its second location in year two.
Now it was August 14, and Jay Davis had a big day ahead.
First he’d drop off his 20-year-old son Keon at the airport to fly home to Baltimore for one last extended stay in his hometown. Then Jay would go to the gym. Then he and his wife, Miketa, would go close on their dream home, a brand new five-bedroom place in Concord.
After years of hardship, they were making it. Jay had served in the Army and worked as a bounty hunter in Baltimore after that. On one trip to Charlotte in 2016 to hunt down a club owner, he met Miketa and never left. He struggled with PTSD, and she struggled with watching him struggle with it, so one day she asked him what would ease his mind.
To have something to pass down to his kids, he told her.
They started this restaurant last year, and one crab cake led to another, and now they’re going to open another one. It’s scheduled to open on Central Avenue in January.
They hope to open a bar, too. And more Lulu’s after that.
That day on the way to the airport, Jay talked to Keon about eventually running a location. When he got home from visiting family and friends in Baltimore, he’d step in to handle more responsibility in the business.
Jay Davis has a bodybuilder’s physique. When he walks, his chest blocks out the world behind him and his arms sort of sway with each step. One of his other sons, 22-year-old Shaun, is an Army field artillery officer at Fort Bragg. Keon, meanwhile, built a little following as a rapper with raw lyrics about hard life in Baltimore. They’re tough guys, you could say. But Jay still kisses his sons on the face when he tells them goodbye and when he sees them again.
That day, bodybuilder and former bounty hunter and successful restaurateur Jay parked in front of the terminal and walked around behind the truck. He snagged the strap of his son’s bag and yanked it off the bed. He told him he’d see him when he got back, pulled him close, then laid a big smooch on his cheek.
“I love you,” Jay said to Keon.
“Love you more,” Keon said back.
What if the best year of your life was your worst?
No, revise that.
What if the worst year of your life was the best?
Would you still remember the good parts? The money and the big house and the new cars.
“2020 ain’t been that great,” Jay tells me this week, sitting at the kitchen table in their new home, with unopened boxes scattered everywhere.
Keon didn’t come home from Baltimore.
Just after 2 a.m. on September 9, for reasons Jay can’t explain and never will understand, with all he had waiting for him, Keon and some friends broke into an acquaintance’s home in Baltimore, and the man who lived there fired eight shots from an AR-15 at them. Five hit Keon. Jay got the call from Keon’s hysterical mother at 3:18 a.m.
She said she’d heard he’d been shot. She didn’t know where. She didn’t know anything. Jay’s spent years of his life looking for people. He called the police precinct.
He asked which hospital Keon was in.
“You need to call homicide,” they said.
When he’s working out, when he’s shutting himself in a room to be alone, Jay replays the night over and over in his mind.
He doesn’t like talking about the circumstances that led to Keon’s death. He knows it’ll make some people think less of his son, and that somehow that means his death shouldn’t hurt him as much. Trust Jay, it hurts.
“He may not have meant much to everybody,” Jay says, “but he was everything to me.”
One thing that stands out about the night to Jay is that he was asleep when the call came in at 3:18. On most other nights, that wouldn’t have been true.
Jay hasn’t had more than a handful of good nights’ sleep since he was in the service. PTSD is a hell of a combat wound.
Miketa got a crash course in it when they first started dating four years ago. She’d stay with him and he’d keep the lights and television turned on. Sometimes she’d ask to sleep in the other room.
“I’m not mad or anything,” she’d tell her new boyfriend. “I just need to sleep.”
If you watch them now, you might wonder whether you’ve ever seen love like it. They don’t just finish each other’s sentences. No, with them, one will start a sentence, the other will pick up in the middle, and then the other will bring it home, as if their thoughts traveled like cars on a train.
She immediately fell for all five of his children. She’d always wanted a little girl, but on the receiving end of the young gentlemen Jay had raised — they opened doors for her; they helped with dinner — she came around to believe that boys were alright.
Jay and Miketa’s entire existence is about family. They named their restaurant after his mother, Lulu. They say the words, “family first,” to each other every day. They have pumpkins with all of his kids’ names on them in their dining room.
His own father died when Jay was 9 in a boating accident in South Carolina. After that the woman who’d helped raise him gave him some startling news: his real mother was in Baltimore, and he was going to live with her.
It’s quite a pill for a boy to receive. It took him more than a decade to come around to his mother. As a teenager he sold drugs and got in trouble. He fathered Shaun, the Fort Bragg soldier, when he was just 15. Keon came along two years after that, when Jay was 17.
Keon was born on February 29, 2000. Leap Day. He was special from the beginning, Jay says.
Jay decided to take another path then: He enlisted in the Army. He learned all the lessons he needed about right and wrong at boot camp.
He rose in the ranks to become a sergeant.
Then, about 13 years ago, he was stationed in Fort Gordon, Georgia, when he got the call that Keon, just 7 then, had fallen out of the window of the rowhome where he lived with his mother and fallen three stories onto the sidewalk. For a short time, Jay says, doctors didn’t know if he’d make it.
Jay rushed home to Baltimore, and after Keon recovered he asked the boy’s mom if he could raise him in Georgia. She agreed.
When Keon arrived, Jay took him to Walmart to buy clothes. It may sound strange to remember specific trips to Walmart, but one thing about this trip will never leave Jay.
While they walked through the store, Jay looked down and saw Keon trying to match his steps.
“He’s trying to walk exactly like I walk,” Jay says now. “And it’s like, ‘Oh, man, you know, my son, he wants to be like me.’”
Jay and Miketa signed the lease on the building on the corner of Tuckaseegee and Berryhill in September 2019. They put about $36,000 of money they’d saved between them into fixing it up. Looking back, they laugh. They had no clue what they were doing.
They knew only a few things: that they loved each other, loved the kids, and loved to cook Maryland food. He’s from Baltimore and she’s from Prince George’s County, just outside of Washington. Up there, people are willing to sacrifice a lot, but never the two essential food groups: crab cakes and chicken.
At 4 p.m. on November 1, 2019 — one year ago this weekend — an inspector in Charlotte gave them the go ahead to open. They started cooking as soon as the inspector left and opened at 6 p.m. that night, with no plan but hope.
I randomly drove past the restaurant a few weeks later. I was raised in Maryland, not far from where Miketa grew up. My father had been a waterman on the Chesapeake, and I’d grown up eating crab cakes the size of softballs. Such meals were rare in Charlotte, so the Lulu’s sign and the broken-pavement parking lot called out to me like a siren. If they were confident enough to say they were making Maryland chicken and seafood, I figured they must be real.
The crab cake was the best I’d had in Charlotte, by a long shot. It tasted like a memory. I bit into it and immediately thought of my dad, who died in 2019. I wrote a story that declared that Jay and Miketa had created the top crab cake in Charlotte.
For whatever reason things take off, the story took off.
The next morning, they went to work like it was an ordinary day.
“By 8 or 9 o’clock, there were lines of people,” Miketa says.
“We’re like, you know we don’t open until 11, right?” Jay says. “And they were like, ‘I know.’”
It hardly stopped after that. In December, they tripled their November sales. They went from making two pans of crab cakes per day (one tray holds about two dozen), to 10 to 12 pans. They went from making two pans of macaroni and cheese per day to eight.
They still thank me for the story, and I still thank them for making crab cakes, and we get along like that.
Things went so well that when Covid-19 hit, Jay and Miketa didn’t have fallback plans.
She’d let go of her real-estate license and he’d let go of his bounty hunter license. With no income except that from the restaurant, they doubled down on Lulu’s.
They’d endeared themselves to the neighborhood. The stretch of Tuckaseegee was once a neighborhood filled with humble homes and mostly Black families. But growth from Uptown has seeped into the west-side like slow-moving green lava, and white business owners now see it as a place to start up, with a new spiked seltzer brewery and big investments in old warehouses.
So to the long-time residents hanging on, Jay and Miketa looked like the neighborhood they remember, even if they didn’t sound much like it (the Baltimore accent is its own linguistic life form). They were fluent in the spirit of the neighborhood, though. If Baltimore breeds anything, it’s a pride of place. It’s something like the relationship people have with siblings — if you live there, you can gripe about Baltimore all you want, but let someone else do it and you’ll see a few clenched fists. The same’s true of the neighborhood around Lulu’s.
That’s a long way of saying that in those early days of Covid-19, when carryout was their only revenue, they still had people who lined up out the door.
Then in late May, after George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, the Black Lives Matter movement took off, sparking a nationwide and citywide call to support Black-owned businesses. Lulu’s, open just seven months, was often the first place on people’s tongues and posts, along with Subrina and Greg Collier’s Leah & Louise and Yolk, or Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams with What The Fries, or Andarrio Johnson and Anglee Brown from Cuzzo’s, just down the street from Lulu’s.
Business soared again.
In fact it was the summer of Jay and Keta, as everyone calls her. When they realized that they couldn’t have their wedding at their preferred venue in Florida, they pulled one together on Lake Wylie in July. She wore a white dress and he wore a white suit, and they smiled at each other until their faces hurt.
Business partners and life partners, they were rolling.
They started coming up with plans to open a bar, not far from Lulu’s. And of course the second Lulu’s. They found a location for it on Central Avenue, in an old garage right next to Pinhouse.
They expect it’ll open in January; you might want to start getting in line around Christmas.
Then they bought their new house in Concord. It had enough room for all five of Jay’s kids to stay with them at once, and it had whistles they still don’t understand. The door talks when you open it.
“House always snitches on you,” Jay says, laughing.
It has a giant kitchen, of course. After their August move-in, they committed to eating healthier. Keta plans their meals and cooks twice a week — Sundays and Wednesdays — then portions them out for the next three days.
They built out their staff, too, which gave them the chance to take some time away.
He started back at the gym, in hopes of losing some restaurant-opening weight, he says.
Everything was rounding into shape.
As the August days passed, they’d call Keon a couple of times a week in Baltimore. Each time Jay would ask him, “When are you coming home?”
Home to Charlotte, he meant.
If you’ve met people from Maryland, you know that one of their defining characteristics is that no matter how long they’ve been away from Maryland, they’re never not from Maryland.
Jay and Keta and their family built a life in North Carolina on the backs of food from Maryland. Point is, Jay understood the lure for Keon, even if, as Jay puts it, “Baltimore is like a graveyard.”
Keon understood it, too. The last song he ever recorded was a tribute to his ex-girlfriend, who was killed by a stray bullet at a party. The last line of it was, “The way this city doing, I could die any second.”
Keon graduated from Cox Mill High School. On prom night, his father rented him a Rolls Royce so he could take his date there. Of all of his kids, Jay was especially protective of Keon. As a teenager, Keon developed vitiligo, a condition in which splotches of skin lose their pigment cells. When Jay would see people give him strange looks, he wanted to snap.
When Jay called him on September 6, he went through the list of questions: Did he need money? Did he need anything at all? No, Keon said.
Every day Keon stayed in Baltimore, Jay worried that Baltimore would get him.
But for whatever reason, Jay says, he didn’t demand that he come back. He wishes he would have. Wishes he would’ve told him that he needed his help, that he needed to get back to work at the restaurant he would one day take over.
On that last call on September 6, three days before Keon did what he shouldn’t have done, and Jay paid a price that no parent should have to pay, they closed the call like they always did.
“I love you,” Jay said to Keon in their last exchange.
And Keon replied, “Love you more.”
Charlotte isn’t perfect, certainly not with 100 murders this year. But the way Charlotte embraced Jay and Keta, they still think of it as the land of opportunity.
They sometimes step outside the front door of Lulu’s and take it in.
“We can see the Uptown skyline,” Jay says. “And the people from that side of town are like, ‘It’s just buildings.’ And I’m like, ‘But it’s a beautiful skyline. How can you not love the skyline?’”
Jay and Miketa want to turn their restaurant success into some sort of initiative to help with violence here, but they don’t know what it’ll look like yet.
They need to get the second location open first.
Other than that, they’re not sure of much.
It’s only been seven weeks, after all. Jay’s mind is scattered. Keta tries to keep everything else stable, to allow him the space. That’s another reason she makes three days’ worth of meals twice a week. Order and routine help.
Sometimes even calls from friends leave Jay angry.
“How can you say something to make somebody OK with losing their son? ‘Hey everything happens for a reason.’ I don’t want to hear that crap!” he says. “How do you tell somebody, ‘There’s a bigger plan’? For WHO?!?”
Jay’s already thinking about Thanksgiving in the new house, and he’s picturing the big table with everyone around. He plans to set a place for Keon, but just turn the plate over.
For now they’re going to keep working, keep trying to make the best of 2020, the best and worst year of their lives, and living by the motto that Keta has set for the family, a message that would be transferrable to much of the world today, one she relayed to me in their kitchen earlier this week.
“It is OK,” she said, looking over at Jay, “to feel grief and joy at the same time.”