Chef Kelsey Jackson Keeps Dream Alive with AC’s Signature Restaurants

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

In September 2020, famed Atlantic City Chef Kelsey Jackson talked with Front Runner New Jersey.com about believing in Atlantic City as part of a story we did in conjunction with Stories of Atlantic City. While the focus centered around the Atlantic City NAACP winning the national NAACP convention for 2022, Jackson talked about numerous subjects, his business with wife Kim, and what keeps them going. Here is the rest of that story.

ATLANTIC CITY – While Kelsey’s supper club, on 1545 Pacific Avenue, a block away from the Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk, and Kelsey and Kim’s Southern Café on 201 Melrose Avenue are two of the city’s top destination eating and entertainment spots, Kelsey Jackson said it was challenging keeping the establishing going after first.

Kelsey Jackson:My wife wanted to give up on this location after three years. I let her know my gut feeling was in four to five years, it would turn around. Once the people started showing up, it’ll be going good. One day, we got some items from Sam’s and came back and line was out the door. She said, ‘Kelsey, I think we made.’ We don’t have big bands but when we have people like Melba Moore and Lyfe Jennings, and we have lines out the door. At the time we hired some 70 employees, so it takes a lot to keep it going.”

Jackson said surviving the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown restrictions were challenging. Kelsey and Kim’s Southern Cafe only took takeout orders at the time and the loss of casino traffic harmed the bottom like at Kelsey’s. He thought about shutting down altogether to weather the pandemic.

Kelsey Jackson: “I thought we had just overcome the city shutdown with the casinos before now were were hit this [coronavirus]. I was so frustrated but I had to rethink. I said, ‘Let’s re-evaluate.’ We have a lot of people who depend on us and rely on us the be there for them, so opened back in May [2020] and did take out.”

Jackson was born in Philadelphia and his family moved to the Atlantic City area when he was 10. His frugal mother, Esther McArthur Jackson, who worked as a coat checker at Resorts Casino, managed to save up enough money to purchase a family home in Pleasantville. Jackson said he never forgot her worth ethic and love for her family.

Love At Second Sight

Kelsey Jackson: “She cleaned rooms and worked two jobs just to keep a roof over our heads. I was 15 and she got sick with cancer the year after she purchased our house and she was gone. She would be overwhelmed to see all of this [his two restaurants]. She was the one I got my drive from. My hustle, my work ethic and drive, determination and will to succeed all comes from her. I know the things she went through the raise six boys and one girl.”

It was love at second sight for the Kelsey and Kimberly Jackson. They were originally high school sweethearts from different schools – Kelsey went to Pleasantville and Kimberly Absegami. They dated during their junior and senior years but went their separate ways after high school.

It would be more than two decades later during a chance meeting at the Sands Bar & Grill where they would cross paths again. This time, there was no denying their call to be together in love and business, marrying in 1992.

Kelsey Jackson: “We were both separated at the time. Things happen for a reason. I was young not ready to settle down [in high school] and it was the best thing for us. So Kim and I got back together and I was working at Trump Marina and Trump Castle (now the Golden Nugget). She knew that owning my own restaurant was my dream. She told me I need to pursue it or I would always wonder, ‘Would if?’ I was already doing these cookouts at home everything seemed to be happening for a reason.”

Dream Comes True

Jackson said he realized his dream of cooking and owning his own restaurant from his mother’s best friend, who ran Marie’s Soul Food. Frequent trips to Marie’s Soul Food not only filled his belly, but filled his dreams of running his own show in the kitchen.

Kelsey Jackson: “It was the best soul food restaurant in Atlantic City. Early on I would taste her food and hang out at her restaurant and that became my passion to open my own restaurant. Once I got into the cooking, I started Los Amigos. I was a dishwasher first and worked my way up to cook. It just seem like everything came together so nature. When I worked at the Trump Castle, we used to have Soul Food Day once a month. They just gave me my own day. I could cook what I wanted. I was cooking in the employee’s cafeteria, the cornbread, black-eyed peas and rice, the fried chicken, barbecue ribs.

“It went over so well, we started doing it on the buffet, too. They even went so far as to let me bring some chitterling in the building. The odor was going and they said we can’t do those anymore. Some of the old employees who are still there still remember the days I used to do Soul Food Day. Kim was working at [Laborers International Union] Local 415 at the time and there was this place on Main Street [in Pleasantville] called Just Wings. It was always dark and gloomy. The one person was the cook, cashier, he did everything. I made an offer.”

Kim Jackson officially joined her husband when she left Local 415 during a merger. Kelsey Jackson said he convinced his wife that he believed his dream was actually their dream.

Kelsey Jackson: “I told her, ‘If you the Lord wanted you to do something else, don’t you think he would have opened up another door. All your education, maybe you’re blocking your blessing and with her, we’ve been growing ever since.”

Lights, Camera, Appetizers

Kelsey’s went international in 2015 when celebrity chef Guy Fieri brought his Food Network television crew to Atlantic City to feature the couple during Season  22 of  “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Jackson said when he first received the phone call about Fieri’s interest, he thought he was being pranked.

Kelsey Jackson:They said they wanted to do an interview. I asked how did you find us? They said customers were calling in and writing so they wanted to come to Atlantic City and find out what all the buzz was about and the rest is history. Now I can talk, normally, but I’m not a person who will get on the big stage. Sometimes I freeze up. I kept saying, ‘How am I going to get through this?’ Guy came in and at first he was real cold, and said, ‘Let’s get in the kitchen and get started.’ After that, though, he warmed up and it turned out to be a great time and a great success. The show aired several years ago and I still get people who will come in and want to take pictures with me. It’s amazing. We had people from China come in, Bermuda; I mean from all over. They all saw it on the Food Network. It’s a beautiful thing.”

HBCU Connection

The Jacksons raised a blended family of two boys and two girls. They all attended HBCUs, representing North Carolina A&T, Winston-Salem and Hampton universities. He said was not by accident.

Kelsey Jackson: “One night I was closing the Pleasantville restaurant and three young ladies came in and placed an order. We started talking and one was a schoolteacher and graduated from Winston-Salem State. I asked, ‘Tell me why you should go to an HBCU? My neighbor, who when North Carolina A&T told me there was nothing like an HBCU education. He said, ‘Go to one of these white schools and they won’t nurture you or build you up. All you are there is a dollar sign. He said at A&T, if you don’t show up to class, your professor is knocking at your door. My daughter wanted to go to school for education. I said that must be a sign. I wanted to take here to Winston-Salem State.”

Klassic. an honors graduate of Hampton State University, Kareema a graduate of Winston-Salam State University, Kelsey Jr. a culinary student of Atlantic Cape Community College and KaShawn a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University.

Kelsey Jackson attended Atlantic Cape Community College’s Culinary Program while Kimberly Jackson earned an associate’s degree there in business and a certificate in baking. She worked for more than 15 years as an assistant administer of Laborers Local  No. 415 before fully joining her husband in the restaurant business.

The Jacksons has given back to the local Atlantic City community as well, sponsoring the Pleasantville PAL, Atlantic City PAL, Atlantic City Viking, Youth Advocate Programs, Mays Landing PAL, Pleasantville Babe Ruth Little League, Pleasantville Jokers, Delta Sigma Phi Sorority Tiny Tots, Hamilton Memorial Freedom School and many other youth based organizations.

Stories of Atlantic City

Here is part of Jackson’s interview that appeared in the Stories of Atlantic City article:

Jackson, who talks fondly of the once historic Kentucky Avenue entertainment district Black citizens once dominated before being torn down, said he wanted his restaurant to be a signature place for those living and coming to visit Atlantic City.

The Food Network’s popular “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” helped that dream become a reality in 2015 when celebrity chef Guy Fieri bounced into town to feature Kelsey’s on the nationally televised show.

“People from around the country still come in and want to take pictures with me because of that,” said Jackson, now a local celebrity chef. “It’s all been a blessing. Some people think it’s all about the money, but it’s also about putting a smile on people’s faces. I want to make people feel good about coming here.

“When people talk about Atlantic City’s great restaurants, they talk about the White House sub shop, Dock’s Oyster House, the Knife and Fork. My dream one day was, and continues to be, to have them talk about Kelsey’s in the same breath,” he said.

Jackson’s ride to success, much like the city’s, has been a bumpy one. One of Jackson’s popular restaurants in Pleasantville burned to the ground. His wife urged Jackson to close Kelsey’s during Atlantic City’s great casino downturn, but he said he just had a gut feeling Atlantic City would make it way back.

Then, the numbers started to return and the Ocean Casino Resort and the Hard Rock opened in 2018, and things appeared on the rise again.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit this year.

“I thought we had just overcome the city’s big shutdown with the casinos but now we got this,” Jackson said of his restaurants, which were closed for months before reopening this summer. Kelsey and Kim’s, for the time being, offers just takeout and live music has not yet returned at Kelsey’s.

Yet, the traffic at both locations has been steady, if not downright heavy at times. Kelsey’s is closed on Tuesday, but there is plenty going on. Employees are cooking, cutting and creating soul food that keeps the popular restaurant running like clockwork when the doors open again on Wednesday.

Jackson said he hopes the NAACP convention will dispel some of the preconceived notions about Atlantic City to the point that it raises its tourism profile again.

“There’s so much negativity about Atlantic City,” Jackson bemoaned. “There’s no more crime in Atlantic City than anywhere else. To me, it’s safe to come to Atlantic City. You don’t fear for your life walking down Pacific Avenue or the Boardwalk or Atlantic Avenue. It’s not that serious.”

He said Kelsey’s and Atlantic City will be ready to roll out the red carpet when the NAACP arrives and show a different side of the city than what has made headlines.

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