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Adam Williams: Restaurateur reinvents himself in hard times

Maggie and Adam Williams in the dining room of Adam's Bistro in Elkhart.
Maggie and Adam Williams in the dining room of Adam's Bistro in Elkhart.John Makely /
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Adam Williams’ improbable journey to Elkhart began in a hail of bullets on a dark road in the Mississippi Delta at 2 a.m. one morning in 1992.

“I just didn’t even believe it was happening,” said Williams, 35, who with his wife, Maggie, 31, now owns two popular Elkhart restaurants and is planning to open a third.

Leaving a nightclub with his brother, sister and sister’s boyfriend, Williams watched what seemed like a surreal slow-motion video as two vehicles full of masked gunmen drove by each side of their car with automatic rifles and handguns blazing. Then the attackers turned around and made another pass.

His sister was shot seven times and her boyfriend also was hit, wounds from which they recovered. Williams and his brother escaped unscathed from what was likely payback for an earlier fight.

As he lay on the floor of the bullet-riddled car, Williams felt, “It was almost like God wrapped his arms around me. I knew from then basically that I had a purpose.”

Williams’ journey is one that began, like many, with a dream. Stunted by poor choices, it was nourished anew with faith and love and now flowers with redemption. It is a story from which Elkhart and the nation might take a page as they struggle to make fresh starts in these troubled times.

The dream was simple. From childhood, “I knew I was going to be a chef and own a restaurant.” Growing up in Shelby, Miss., a town of about 3,000 where half the residents live in poverty, that seemed a tall order.

“We lived in a house with holes in the roof and my dad was a sharecropper,” Williams said.

But his mother’s love of food rubbed off. She worked in the restaurant business and sent Williams to apprentice with friends who ran eateries around the South. After high school, he attended culinary school.

Then came the poor choices. Killing time back in Shelby, Williams began dabbling in drug sales, which ultimately led to the dispute that ended in gunfire.

When the police finished questioning him, Williams said, “I decided to just let God lead me and see what happened.”

‘Give me a ticket to the next bus that's leaving'
He went to the bus station. “I said, ‘Give me a ticket to the next bus that’s leaving,’ and it was going to South Bend.” From there, he made his way to Elkhart where he found a job managing a chain pizza store.

That led him to Goshen native Maggie, working in a sandwich shop next door. Williams was instantly “mesmerized” by his future wife. The two have been together since, and are now parents to Gabriella, 14; Adam, 12; Calique, 10; and Charles, 6.

In 2006, Williams and his wife opened their first restaurant, Unique Blend, which serves robust fare ranging from burgers to southern baked beans. It was a hit and was followed by Adam’s Bistro, a lunch joint, last year.

Their success has made them prominent Elkhart citizens and enabled them to give back to the community by donating meals and food to organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Elkhart Faith Mission. They teach twice-monthly cooking classes for kids at the YMCA.

Their story might end happily there save for the events of May 2, 2008, when they awoke to find a burning cross in their front yard. Williams knew Indiana to be a former hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, but he had found overwhelming acceptance in Elkhart as a black man, business owner and husband of a white woman. An FBI probe of the incident remains open.

“This is a horrible thing to happen to anybody,” said Williams, “but I feel like for some reason I was chosen.”

Leading the way on racial issues
Instead of retreating in fear or anger, Adam and Maggie Williams have increased their leadership on racial issues. They are key proponents of hate crime legislation in Indiana, one of a handful of states that lack such laws.

The Williamses have found strong support among their townsfolk in the aftermath of the cross-burning. And as the economy worsened, their loyal customer base never shrank.

That support was a major force behind the new restaurant, their most ambitious project to date, Adam Williams said. “Soul Expressions” will be located in downtown Elkhart and serve a Southern menu, rich with Cajun and Creole influences.

With a full dinner menu, Williams expects to employ 20 to 30 people, more than double his current total staff. He said he is as excited about creating those jobs in Elkhart as he is about perfecting the dishes.

“My mother always told me if you’re going to have a business and be supported by your community, you have to support your community,” he said.

Williams also has encouraged other Elkhart residents to step up however they can in the economically battered city’s hour of need. “People just need to take risks like we’re doing” and remember that “it’s not going to be an overnight thing.”

Drawing on his own transformation from drug dealer to model citizen, Williams said, “Each individual has to figure out a way to reinvent themselves. There are a lot of scared people here, but whether you fail or succeed is on your shoulders and to not try is already to have failed.”