Maybe it was fueled by a perpetual hunger to try new things.
Perhaps it stemmed from the fact that she’s lived in 10 different states, some more than once. Or maybe her Bohemian ’70s childhood had something to do with it, along with a free-spirited mother whom, she says, “followed gurus and psychics and channelers around the country.”
“I don’t know where it came from – I think I was having to reinvent myself my whole life,” says Eve Williams, 53, founder of Mojo Burrito, while discussing the retro vibe of her four Chattanooga restaurants. “Everywhere I went, I just kind of adopted something I liked, or a thought or a feel.”
Sitting in her newest Mojo eatery in Ooltewah’s trendy Cambridge Square, Williams adjusts the collection of silver bangles wrapped around her forearm, including one on which her daughter teethed as a baby.
Morning sunlight pours in through the front wall of windows, illuminating the bright-blue-and-lime interior and a hive of kitchen employees busily readying the place for the inevitable onslaught of lunch regulars.
Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Williams was the ninth of 10 children in a blended family. Her “vivacious” mom already had seven sons and a little girl when she met and married Williams’ dad.
When Williams was 2, the family migrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, in the first of several cross-country moves. Despite her mother’s gypsy lifestyle – one Williams would later echo in her own nomadic adulthood – she more closely identified with her father, a level-headed accountant.
“My dad was a hero to me,” she adds with obvious affection. “He just did so much for all these children that weren’t his. They became his, but these were older children. He never complained and worked hard. That’s where I get my work ethic.”
Williams didn’t set out to become a business owner; rather, she wanted to be an Olympic ice skater and a trucker or cab driver. “Actually, Dorothy Hamill’s coach was my coach,” she recalls. “But it was very short-lived because we moved again.”
She never attended college. Her first job busing tables at a touristy Williamsburg restaurant, at age 15, gave her a glimpse of the service industry, and she liked it.
In the late 1980s, Williams started her own residential and commercial cleaning business in Atlanta before a high-powered attorney hired her as estate keeper and nanny. She also hosted at the iconic Buckhead Diner, “which taught me a lot about time management,” she says. “We would run three-hour waits, so it was very organized. We were able to keep everyone happy and make lots of money.”
Upon relocating to Washington state to be near her parents, she discovered they had joined a cult. Even with her open-minded upbringing, she recounts, it was a bit much, so she didn’t stick around.
“I didn’t like that, but to each their own. That’s sort of the way I was raised, you know: You be you and I’ll be me.”
‘What are you?’
Williams married, gave birth to her first daughter, Skylar, and moved around some more before settling in upstate New York, where she opened a coffeehouse with two partners, then sold her car and used the money to stock her new resale shop, Little Eva’s. “I mean, I couldn’t find a job,” she says, shrugging. “With my background, people look at me and go, ‘What are you?’”
By now, she was a single mom with a fidgety 5-year-old who was tired of tagging along to estate sales and auctions. So, Williams moved again, selling furniture in North Carolina and real estate in Virginia.
“I’ve been able to skirt through life without a lot of education – just enough street smarts to get me by, I guess,” she acknowledges. “I’ve always been independent and tough. Wherever I worked, I immediately rose to the highest level that I could.”
When Skylar expressed a desire to be near her father, who lived in Chattanooga, mother and daughter packed up and headed here. For a while, Williams sold franchises for a local handyman service and briefly worked at the Better Business Bureau.
“I realized that there just wasn’t going to be much for me here in this town,” she recalls. “I just didn’t have the skillset that anyone would want. My success with small businesses, in the past, is I would bring something that’s missing, not duplicate something else.”
That something turned out to be a burrito shop. Back in the early ‘90s, Williams had seriously considered opening one inside an outfitters’ building where she made lunch for the guides, but she and the owners couldn’t agree on how to run the kitchen.
Here she was a decade later, striking up a conversation with a St. Elmo Historic District business owner who offered to rent her the building. Says Williams, “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, how hard could it be? Beans, rice, cheese.”
She opened the first Mojo Burrito in 2002, creating the menu just days before its debut and decorating it with vintage finds “because I was just flat broke.” Papa Bear’s Vegetarian Chili, a three-bean dish she was raised on, showed up in many of the entrees, including her personal favorite, the Happy Camper bowl and a kids’ version named after her youngest daughter Lily.
Williams admits she is not a strict vegetarian but ate many such meals as a child when her parents couldn’t afford to buy meat.
“I have to be honest. I didn’t invent salsa. I did not invent marinades,” she continues. “There were no inventions that I came up with that didn’t already exist in the world. I just made it my own.”
Her landlord refused to let her install a range hood, so to meet the demand, two years later she opened a catering and delivery business in the adjacent building. Then for one year, she operated a Mojo Burrito downtown next to Cheeburger Cheeburger, still carting items to St. Elmo.
But “having a bar was not my style,” she says. “I just didn’t like the liability and the behavior of my bartenders. It’s just not what I wanted to do. I just needed a kitchen to cook for my St. Elmo store. We would take commissary food down there every day.”
When her lease was up, the owner of a building in Red Bank approached her about opening another Mojo there. “People thought I’d lost my mind to move to Red Bank,” she adds, referring to that site as “the little engine that could.”
“But it’s been my No. 1 store until I moved [the original restaurant]. So, it’s treated me right.”
In 2010, Williams opened a third store in East Brainerd, and in 2015, she moved the St. Elmo store across the street, tripling its sales. This spring, she launched her fourth Mojo in Ooltewah, partly because the vegetarian-based menu was a natural fit for the strong Southern Day Adventist community.
Over the years, long-term employees invented their own dishes and, more recently, Williams added a few specialty burritos.
Not much else has changed. Williams still supports local food businesses such as Hoff Sauce, The Hot Chocolatier and Blue Indian Kombucha. She also sells vegan cheese dip from Cashew restaurant on the North Shore and beer from local breweries.
She is a big fan of commissioning local art, from murals by the artist known as Seven to menu illustrations by David Helton, a longtime contributor to Highlights children’s magazine. Williams jumps up from her chair and retrieves Helton’s just-finished caricature of the real-life Papa Bear – her beloved father, who died during her first year of business – sporting glasses and an apron. She plans to start packaging the popular chili in grab-and-go containers this year.
“This is just one of my bucket list things for my dad,” she says.
Despite the recent influx of assembly-line, Tex Mex chain eateries, Mojo Burrito continues to draw an intensely loyal following. “When I first opened, people were shocked at the freshness of the food,” she points out. “There was just nothing like it.
“It’s just the way I grew up. I was brought up on fresh-ground peanut butter. We didn’t have white bread. We had a dairy deliver our milk in bottles. So, we always had natural. There was no such thing as margarine in our house. We didn’t have white refined sugar.”
Williams also prides herself on customer service in a Cheers-like atmosphere where employees remember what the locals routinely order. “The consistent outpouring of love that we have received …,” she says, her voice trailing. “I have people that are still eating with me today that I introduced myself to on Day One.
“Some people eat with us five days a week. It blows my mind, it really does.”
Benefits for her workers
Still, she insists, taking care of her 100 employees – some have worked for her for more than a decade – comes first.
In an era of shrinking employer benefits, especially in the restaurant industry, Williams provides life, health, dental and vision insurance, investment matches through IRAs and paid vacations. She considers herself a problem-solver and a good communicator who has learned to listen to both sides of a story.
The only reason she’d consider opening more restaurants in the future, she says, is to promote her staff.
“I’ll be brutally honest,” she notes. “I started this year thinking I might be in over my head now because I don’t have the education. I don’t have the books. I know this is not a mom-and-pop anymore and as much as I would love to keep it that way, it’s a machine now. When I say, ‘I own four restaurants,’ no, the four restaurants own me. My only desire to do more is to offer growth opportunities for the people who are with me. They deserve it.”
The company’s administrative coordinator, Ashley Marler, has been a Mojo employee for seven years. “I love working around Eve,” she explains. “She always keeps it exciting and is constantly changing things up. Her greatest strength is that she always trusts her instincts.
“She is an amazing woman who cares deeply about the people in her life,” Marler adds. “She is always trying to help someone and never lets the people in her life down. She is definitely someone you can count on.”
Despite her willingness not to rule out future restaurants, Williams insists she has no desire to turn Mojo Burrito into a chain.
“If that were to happen, I would step out,” she notes. “I could not handle that stress. I’m not built for the big time. I’m built for, ‘Hi, my name’s Eve. How are you doing? What can I make you?’ I just like making people happy and feeding them well and giving back.”
Although she considers herself a “bright,” friendly person – “I’m not afraid of anything, any situation,” she says – she has no hankering to be in the spotlight either. “I have a weird sense of being camera-shy,” she confides. “I like to keep a low profile.”
As hectic as her schedule is, Williams has started taking more time to travel with her daughters. In 2015, she took both to Barcelona for spring break. After that, she did a road trip with Lily to Canada and a trek through Iceland, Rome and Amsterdam with Skylar.
In a way, she is simply honoring her mother’s free-thinking legacy. “My mom was always ahead of her time, and I kind of feel like I was ahead of my time in everything I’ve done, where I’ve done it,” Williams says.
“I’m a survivor. Pretty much I just scrap and claw. I do not stand on anyone’s back to reach the stars. I do that on my own.”