DOVER — The recipe for Tomeka Crawford’s dream-come-true business is filled with things like a drive to succeed, community support, a constant pursuit of knowledge, a network of experts, an edge from the state and many blessings.
On April 21, Ms. Crawford will open Tomeka’s Homestyle Eatery, nestled in the Liberto Plaza shopping center at 1466 East Lebanon Road in Dover. She plans to open from Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., to start.
The freshly renovated restaurant will feature dine-in and take-out options. The menu will be filled with items Ms. Crawford has become famous for, including her mac and cheese and other home-cooked soul food options.
Seafood lovers will want to make Tomeka’s Homestyle Eatery a regular stop.
“I’m very diverse with my menu and also spontaneous. I love to offer people what they want to eat. I do have an everyday menu. It’s going to be quite a bit of seafood. There’s a variety of fresh fish, baked and fried. There’s going to be crab cakes, jumbo lump,” Ms. Crawford said.
The new eatery owner grew up in Hurlock, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. She said her connection to that area taught her a lot about seafood, especially preparing crabs.
“I’m focused on jumbo lump. That’s one of my favorites. You get the meat. I’m from the Eastern Shore, I’m a shore girl,” she said.
For Dover’s newest restaurateur, her eatery isn’t just the culmination of hard work and the realization of a dream, it’s also a tribute to her mother who passed away last year.
“My mother always loved some pork products so I will have her fried pork chops. I will have barbecue ribs. I do baby back ribs. We will have turkey wings. We’ll have fried chicken and a variety of other items,” Ms. Crawford said.
Tomeka’s will also feature a daily special.
“You may see some vegetarian dishes or vegetarian lasagna, loaded eggplant. You may see some alfredos, you may see taco days. I will serve sandwiches and salads, too,” Ms. Crawford said.
Ms. Crawford said she has always loved to cook. She found her way around the kitchen with her mother. That is where she got her entrepreneurial spirit from, too.
“I was with her hand-to-hand and foot-to-foot. I watched her in the kitchen. I watched her serve the community. I watched her when everybody came in, she offered a meal. I watched her and it just leaked into my spirit that this is what I really want to do. And I never lost it,” she said.
In their small community in Hurlock, Ms. Crawford’s mother was known as the “Freeze Cup Lady.” She made money to buy school clothes for her family by selling frozen treats from her home to people in their neighborhood.
Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Dina Vendetti said of Ms. Crawford, “She has an incredible story.”
“She wanted to open a restaurant featuring homestyle cooking. She came to Kent County Open for Business — a free business development service offered to the community by the CDCC. And now she is a wonderful success story,” Dr. Vendetti said.
Ms. Crawford attributes a lot of her success to the support she received from the CDCC and other organizations.
After high school, Ms. Crawford attended Wesley College while working in the restaurant industry. She graduated with a degree in marketing from the former Dover institution, eventually finding work in the banking and finance industry. She worked for a few of the large mainstream banks before seeking more fulfilling work with NCALL – a nonprofit organization based in Dover that specializes in affordable housing development, education and lending. She has worked as a homeownership specialist for almost 20 years.
In 2018, Ms. Crawford decided it was time to make her restaurant dreams come true. She began by contacting the Downtown Dover Partnership. A conversation with that group led to her becoming a regular at the Capital City Farmers Market.
Buzz around her food grew and she would regularly sell out of food and her well-known iced tea every week. Her mobile food venture grew to the Dover Air Force Base where she became a regular feature at events on base.
“I would sell out of food in two hours,” she said of her pop-up food space on DAFB.
A conversation at the CDCC’s Kent County Open for Business event — held the first Thursday of every month — led Ms. Crawford to a commercial kitchen with the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing’s facility.
With that partnership, her business grew.
In 2019, after applying on a whim, simply for the experience of applying for these types of initiatives, Ms. Crawford was awarded a $50,000 grant from the state’s Division of Small Business Encouraging Development, Growth & Expansion grants.
The EDGE grant program provides businesses that have been in operation less than five years and have 10 or fewer employees with a three-to-one match on business funds for expenses like equipment, advertising or building infrastructure.
The grant helped Ms. Crawford start her brick-and-mortar restaurant without any loans.
Ms. Crawford said it took a village of people to help realize her dream and she is grateful for them.
“I didn’t do this alone. I’m a believer in God. He was there all the time. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, I had the village to help me get where I am today,” she said.
“The Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, I had a whole family of professionals through the Kent County Open For Business that has helped me tremendously, even the mayor of Dover has been a supporter of my small business.”
For Ms. Crawford, so many groups seeing the ability to succeed within her has fueled her desire for success.
“They believed in my dream because I was confident in my dream. They believed in me. I can’t tell you how many people are in my village. I have the SBA, I have SCORE. I have Delaware Division of Small Business. I have United Way of Delaware … I’m probably not even telling it all. There has been a lot of people that has helped me. I can’t even name all of them. It’s just so many, but they have been very supportive for my business. I know the village cannot leave me now because I will still need them, I still have to grow. So, I’m going to take the village with me on this journey forwards to my success.”