Family of seven comes together to carry forward the iconic James Brown's Place diner

Tracy Schuhmacher
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

For many families, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about more togetherness than ever before, and for some, that circumstance has been challenging.

But the Joyce family — Amanda and her six children, Vanessa, 20; Rebecca, 18; Julian, 17; Joanna, 15; Jazmine, 14; and Allena, 12 — seems to relish being together. They have been home schooling for the past nine years. They spent eight months touring 36 states in an RV — and the trip would have gone on longer had the COVID-19 pandemic not shut down destinations.

Now, Amanda has purchased James Brown's Place, an iconic diner on Culver Road, and the entire family is involved in running it. The family has virtually no restaurant experience, and they have found that running one is a lot of work. But complaints (at least to visiting newspaper reporters) from the younger generation are few.

Their perspective may stem from a traumatic past and an appreciation for how Amanda Joyce has changed their lives.

Prayers answered

Amanda Joyce, left, reaches over the counter to hug her daughter Vanessa, after she became emotional talking about being adopted during an interview at James Brown's Place Diner on Culver Road in Rochester Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.  The Joyce family now own and operate the popular Rochester diner.

When Vanessa Joyce, the oldest of the siblings, talks about her childhood, it doesn't take long before tears start to well up in her eyes.

She remembers being poor and neglected when they lived with their birth parents. Around the age of 5 or 6, she would be left alone to take care of her brothers and sisters, with a loaf of bread to share and mattresses to sleep on. After that, they were paired up in foster care, and that wasn't great, either.

She remembers her foster parents taking her to church for the first time. "I didn't know who God was," she said. But she fervently prayed for parents for her and her siblings. "I'll do anything," she told God.

Her prayers were answered when she was given a book filled with pictures of the people who would become her parents, as well as of family members, the house where they would live and the couple's greyhound dogs. "I was super excited to have a mommy and a daddy," she said.

Things would improve, but it wouldn't always be smooth sailing.

From parent to single parent

Owner Amanda Joyce visits with customer Stuart Levy at her James Brown's Place Diner on Culver Road in Rochester Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

As a child, Amanda Joyce's goal in life had been to adopt special needs kids and be a mom. She studied elementary education and psychology in college.

She and her husband hosted 21 foster children before they started looking into adopting. She was looking online with an eye toward adopting a pair of brothers when she came upon six siblings in Portland, Oregon, who needed a home. The children, from a toddler up to 8 years old, had been paired off in foster care for two years. The couple decided to adopt them all. 

The four oldest children moved to Rochester first, with the younger pair arriving a few months later. 

Rebecca Joyce, 18, the second-oldest sibling, remembers being "blown away" when she arrived at the house in the Culver-Merchants neighborhood; she thought it looked like a castle. "I was very happy to be away from my foster home," she said.

But her elation was brief. "My dad didn't like me that much," said Rebecca, who describes her younger self as "this little girl with an ADHD problem." 

The couple divorced in 2012, leaving Amanda as the primary caregiver. The family lived mostly on subsidies the government provides to help adoptive parents meet the needs of hard-to-place children. Amanda also babysat and found other ways to make ends meet. "We lived very frugally, too," she said. "We didn’t do frivolous stuff like going out to eat.”

As a result of trauma and neglect, the children were behind in school. They attended public school, charter school and BOCES, but it was hard to find the right fit. Amanda started home schooling them until she could find a better solution. “We loved it and kept doing it," she said, and the children have been home schooled for the past nine years.

Amanda's approach has been to incorporate life experiences into learning. She followed that philosophy on their monthslong road trip. And the diner will be a learning experience for all of them. 

Passing the torch

James Brown's Place Diner is open, at 1356 Culver Road in Rochester Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

When Vanessa graduated high school, some aspects of moving into adulthood, such as choosing a career path, brought on anxiety. She did not plan to attend college. 

“We brainstormed a bunch of job ideas.” Amanda said. She floated the idea of buying a business, and Vanessa responded with enthusiasm.

Amanda applied for a home equity loan and started looking for a suitable businesses. A few possibilities didn't pan out. "As soon as I saw James Brown's for sale, it was like ‘that’s it,'” she said. "It was a neighborhood staple. We lived right near it.”

James Brown had operated his namesake restaurant for 22 years, and it had been a long time since he had been slinging eggs on the flat top. “I miss it but I physically can’t do it anymore," he said in October. "I can supervise and that’s what I've been doing.”

Brown got a lot of help when he was starting out and he wanted to pay it forward with the Joyce family. Completing the sale took months, so the family started going into the diner to learn the menus, learn to cook Brown's recipes and get familiar with the equipment.

James Brown in his Rochester restaurant, James Brown's Place.

Brown hired some of the Joyce children as cooks. It was the perfect arrangement; Brown had struggled to find staff when increased unemployment benefits were more lucrative than working at a restaurant. He taught the Joyce family his recipes, including the rules of cooking Brown's popular vegan breakfast fare, like using separate griddles and utensils.

Brown said that if you came into the diner now, you wouldn't know the difference between their food and his. “I've trained the kids personally," he said. "There’s nothing changing.”

"I want them to be successful at this," he said. "The neighborhood needs a place.”

With the purchase complete, Vanessa now owns 40% of the business. “It was like a graduation gift," Amanda said. “I look as it as an investment in her future.” But she is quick to say that if the restaurant doesn't wind up being Vanessa's calling, she can sell her share and walk away.

Vanessa and Julian work the grill. Joanna is a prep cook, putting down toast and making pancake batter. Rebecca and Jazmine are learning to waitress. Allena, 12, pitches in informally by taking sodas to customers and busing tables. The entire family pitches in on doing dishes.

“We’re very much incorporating the restaurant into our home schooling as well," Amanda said. The math curriculum includes lesson on taxes and payroll. Science includes food safety practices and the reasons behind them. And the arts includes cooking and artfully presenting dishes. 

Amanda plans to stay true to James Brown's food, including the vegan menu, but she plans to move forward with her own ideas as well. Her favorite part of owning the business has been meeting customers, getting to know the regulars and remembering their standing orders.

"They’ve all been really great," she said. "They’ve all been really supportive. It’s great to hear what people like and what people want changed.” 

Reporter Tracy Schuhmacher focuses on food from many facets. Send story tips to Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow. Thanks to our subscribers for supporting local journalism.

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