On any day, Monday through Friday, starting around 11 a.m., lots of folks on foot and in search of the elusive parking place on Main Street let their hunger pangs guide them. For many, the destination is Café 212.
Standing in line to order are hometown regulars, tourists and even local first-timers who’ve gotten the good word about one of Tupelo’s favorite gathering places. They come for a cup of gourmet coffee and a homemade pastry or a hearty lunch from the impressive menu, or perhaps they have a hankering for the day’s special.
No matter the culinary preference, Café 212 has become a friendly respite in the midst of a busy day. Of course, the success of any business depends on the people who make it work.
At Café 212, that would be Jason and Amanda Hayden, along with the four women who work daily at the cafe. The Haydens treat their employees – Amy, April, Callie and Ramona – like family.
“The workspace is small – we have to have people we can get along with,” Jason said.
Amanda, who worked for her cousin Robin Walton at Yummy Too, a sandwich and yogurt shop, was the beginning of Café 212. When her cousin wanted to sell, Amanda decided to buy.
“I realized I liked it and was good at it,” she said.
It was not as easy a sell to Jason, however, when it was suggested he join his wife in the restaurant business.
“I was basically supporting the cafe with my job at Radio Shack,” he said. “I thought the cafe was such a risk. I didn’t see how we could make money if both of us were here.”
Finally, Jason jumped into food service with both feet.
“There was a big learning curve early on,” he said. “Pricing, cutting out waste, payroll. We had to learn to do a little bit of everything.”
As if finishing her husband’s thoughts, Amanda added, “We just hung in until we got better.”
And it did get better.
Positive feedback from patrons made them believe they were doing something right – “even if the bank account didn’t show it,” Jason said.
In the early days, making the menu, Amanda said, was fairly simple.
“It contained stuff I liked to eat — things I ate on a regular basis and enjoyed,” she said.
These days, the menu is more extensive. There’s a daily special – the most popular is “Mama’s Chicken Casserole.” The favorite dessert is chocolate chip peanut butter pie made by Charlotte Riley, Amanda’s mother. Two kinds of chicken salad, both created by “trial and error,” grace the menu.
“Jason makes all the chicken salad now,” said Amanda, who admits it drives her crazy to watch her husband cook. “He measures nothing.”
Clearly, Jason, sporting his signature newsboy cap, does not take offense at his wife’s comment.
“I’m kind of like a little mad scientist back there,” he said with pride. “I do hate measuring cups. That’s why I’m not a baker.”
Jason did not always like cooking but said it’s now something he loves. Amanda — not so much.
“I hate cooking,” she said. “When I leave here every day, I don’t make food anymore.”
The honey apple nut chicken salad easily lands the spot as the top-selling sandwich, while the white cheddar pimiento cheese takes a close second. Elvis-loving folks in town for a visit to The Birthplace have a chance to get all shook up over the Fit For A King portion of the menu, with offerings such as Blue Suede Grill — bananas, peanut butter and honey grilled on wheatberry bread; or “Blue Hawaii” Grill — ham, pineapple and mayo grilled on sourdough bread; and The Hound Dog – an old-fashioned grilled hot-dog. Of their menu, the Haydens say it’s pretty simple.
“We make stuff that tastes good to us,” the couple said.
The Alabama-born Jason moved with his family to Tupelo when he was 10. He and Amanda, a Lee County native, went to school together, but became friends as high school seniors.
“We were just buddies …, ” Amanda said before Jason interrupted.
“Wait a minute. We may have been buddies to her, but I always had intentions of dating her,” he said. ”It took a while to convince her, though.”
Married 11 years, the Haydens glance at one another and smile when asked if they ever argue on the job.
“Our friends who work here will tell you, ‘If you haven’t seen Jason and Amanda fight, you’re not a regular,’” Jason said.
Having a quirky sense of humor helps them both.
“I’ve been known to threaten him with a knife once a week,” Amanda said, laughing.
“That’s why I don’t sharpen the knives,” her husband said.
“If we get mad at each other at work, we get over it by the end of the day,” Amanda said. “It’s usually because of some smart-alecky comment from him. And I can be just downright mean.”
In fact, whether fun or fact, there’s been talk of a T-shirt just for Amanda.
“The front would say, ‘I may not be a redhead by nature,’” she said. “And the back, ‘But I sure as hell am one by heart’.”
Restaurant work is not easy. In fact, Amanda said if she ever hears anyone say they think it’d be fun to open one, she will quickly tell them not to do it. But with a decade of hard work behind them, the culinary couple has found their calling — not only in their cafe but also in their community.
“That’s the best thing that’s come out of all this,” Amanda said. ”It’s how much we feel a part of the community. The majority of our friends we’ve met because of the cafe.”
As the two talk of Tupelo, one quickly realizes what a powerful public relations team they are for their town.
“We feel like such a part of this community,” Amanda said. “We want to see Tupelo be the best it can be. Being in this place, on Main Street, is such a good opportunity. We see where needs are. It’s been awesome for us. I’m not sure if we didn’t have the café if we’d have the same opportunities.”
Jason nods in agreement.
”It may sound cliché, but I truly want everyone to see Tupelo how I see it. I’ve always loved living here. Honestly, I believe it gets better every day.”
Café 212 is closed most weekends, unless there’s a big event scheduled in Tupelo, like the Gumtree Festival, which is held each May on Mother’s Day weekend. Several years ago on Gumtree weekend, what the couple calls their “biggest weekend,” the main cooler at Café 212 broke.
“Everything spoiled,” Jason said. “We had to shut down for two days.”
Word got around and customers started a fund to help with a new cooler.
“It was a humbling experience,” he said.
On days when the line inside Café 212 is long, the phone orders keep coming and chaos reigns, the Haydens continue serving up good food and Southern hospitality.
“Even when we’ve had a bad day and I occasionally think of selling, I can’t do it,” Amanda said. ”It hurts me to even think of not having this place.”
And Jason, despite his doubts early on, believes he’s where he’s supposed to be.
”I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he said.
And regarding working together day in and day out: ”It’s not easy working with your spouse in such a confined space,” Amanda said. “But I wouldn’t want to do it without him. We really do work well together.”
Once again, the two are in agreement.
“We’ve gone from ‘what are we doing?’ to ‘This is what it’s all about.”’