Dozens of customers line up daily outside the Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro, salivating as the aroma of fried chicken and mac and cheese wafts by.
The executive chef behind that success is now opening her own restaurant in North Jacksonville to capitalize on her brand and invest in her family and eventual retirement.
Next month, Celestia Mobley plans to open Celestia’s Coastal Cuisine, a soul food and Caribbean-style restaurant at 6765 Dunn Ave., in the Dunn Village Shopping Center.
She envisions it as the first of several fast-casual restaurants she’ll build across the state.
After 19 years of growing the Potter’s House restaurants, the endeavor will help Mobley get back to her roots.
“This is all me,” Mobley said. “I love to cook. I do want more time in the kitchen.”
Banking on her reputation, Mobley can hardly go wrong. The Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro started as a tiny Westside café, expanded into a large restaurant on Lenox Avenue, and later opened a second location on Atlantic Boulevard in the Southside area. It added a food truck in October.
Five years ago, Urban Spoon put Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro on “America’s Most Popular Cheap Eats,” a top 100 list of restaurants “where diners can get the tastiest bang for their buck.”
Two years ago, Mobley published her “Southern Goodness” cookbook, with recipes honoring the classic comfort food of her childhood and the family dinner.
Mobley said she will stay with the Potter’s House Soul Food Bistros, where as general manager she oversees roughly 100 employees. The key, she said, is to hire more top talent so she can balance it all.
Celestia’s Coastal Cuisine will keep the soul food and greatly expand the seafood menu, including snow crab, Dungeness crab, and chargrilled oysters with garlic and parmesan cheese. It will also offer island favorites like fried plantains and beans and rice.
This restaurant will also serve something the Potter’s House restaurants — which are associated with The Potter’s House Christian Fellowship — can’t: Beer and wine.
“You can’t have oysters without beer,” Mobley said.
She’ll also have more freedom in hiring, which may include a few family members, she said. She won’t have to follow the Potter’s House practice of hiring rehabilitated convicts to help them reintegrate into the community, a worthy yet time-consuming effort that requires lots of patience and counseling, she said.
Unlike the buffet at the Potter’s House restaurants, customers at Mobley’s 2,400-square-foot restaurant will order at the counter.
Mobley started her first restaurant in 1998 after several years of working in banking. The Garlic Crab Shack, a take-out restaurant on the Westside, was short-lived. It was done-in by her inexperience in business and trying do everything herself while raising a daughter, who was then 5 years old.
The following year, her pastor, Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin of the Potter’s House Christian Fellowship, encouraged Mobley to come work at the little cafe in his church.
She did so while earning a degree in culinary management at Florida State College at Jacksonville.
As executive chef, she built Potter’s House Soul Food’s reputation by providing the best Southern cooking in a pleasant family environment.
Known for her “Cheesy Mac and Cheese,” Mobley said comfort food never goes out of style. As a child, she learned how to cook by watching her grandmother, a woman who taught her “how to put love in my food.”
Now Mobley, who will soon turn 50, is thinking of her future.
“It’s an investment for me and my family,” she said.