Entrepreneurship is runs deep in Dewayne Johnson's family. He's combined a welding practice with a love for cooking with his shop on Summer Avenue. Next is a restaurant near the Broad Avenue Arts District and investing in Memphis' next generation of metalworkers.
Swing by DJ’s Custom Welding along Summer Avenue at Tillman Street and you’re likely to catch a whiff of something that is unlike fused metal.
While the building advertises a welding business inside, in front is his own custom-made food cart serving a friendly welcome in the flavors of hot tamales, ribs and turkey legs.
Those food delicacies go back decades in Binghampton, a neighborhood where owner Dewayne Johnson grew up and graduated from East High School in 1982. To understand why he combines hot tamales with welding requires a knowledge of how he was raised.
His aunt owned a restaurant and convenience store in Binghampton, and his uncle had a welding business. He grew up around both businesses, and after studying welding Johnson approached his uncle for a job.
“What got me into this is growing up in my situation of life in this area,” Johnson said. “My mom, with seven sisters, the restaurant is what they did. So just being around it and seeing it, you see something long enough that’s what you focus on.”
Johnson opened DJ’s Custom Welding in 2006. Today he does a variety of custom welding jobs such as grills, fences, gates and air-conditioning cages. He has repaired and reset whole apartment complex staircases, refurbished rusting items and refinishes pretty much anything made with iron.
Setting out front of the shop next to his hot tamale cart is a row of custom-built grills. They get plenty of attention now; Johnson also has been featured on Food Network for a massive racecar grill he built that played a role in the opening of Tiger Lane.
But he didn’t really set out to focus a welding business on building grills. A friend asked him to build one. She liked it and he decided to do more.
That home-based project transformed his business and eventually led him to the 2992 Summer Avenue building 10 years ago. But before a grill sold, the first item sold at DJ’s was a hot tamale.
Johnson is proud of his tamales that once were served at his aunt’s restaurant. Back in 2012 the I Love Memphis blog listed eating one of his welding shop tamales as the 222nd of 365 Things to Do in Memphis.
Johnson built a more formal food cart that he started using in early 2016 to sell the hot tamales and other items as a way to make extra income during the slower winter months.
Thinking back to how he approached his uncle for a job, Johnson today tries to help students when he can. He often brings in welding students to go out with him on jobs and to help build barbecue grills in the shop.
He recalls with a big smile the student that reminded Johnson of himself when he approached his uncle for a job. Darryl Spencer was a student who lived nearby off Highland Street. He rode by daily to and from Trezevant Votech where he studied welding. He got off the bus one day and asked Johnson if he could mimic what he did.
“I said I want to shadow you. You don’t have to pay me,” Spencer said by phone while on a lunch break from his welding job on Presidents Island. “I was willing to work for free to learn a craft. DJ said, ‘I won’t let you work for free but you’ll learn.’ We’ve been tight and cool since then.”
Spencer was 17. Today he’s 27 and a certified structural steel welder. It’s simple stories like Spencer’s that excites Johnson. He wants to help more Memphians like Spencer, who actually ended up in welding by accident.
While a student at Raleigh-Egypt Spencer signed up for automotive class but it was booked. So they put him in welding, and a mentor like Johnson helped him develop a love for the career, he recalled.
Beyond finding ways to help future students, Johnson has big plans for his business. He rents the current location where he’s installed the block walls, roll-up doors and built an office and an iconic mural.
Even though he’s made investments there, he has his eyes a couple of blocks to the south in the Broad Avenue Arts District.
Last summer he purchased the building at the corner of Broad and Scott Street where his aunt formerly operated Ruby’s Restaurant. Along with a cousin who teaches at L’Ecole Culinaire cooking school, Johnson wants to open a restaurant at the site. He also wants to use a lot behind the building to expand his welding business.
The expanded business will be a restaurant and catering facility combined with a food truck commissary. Johnson said he wants to create a food truck business that he franchises out to individual operators who would use his commissary to prep the necessary food items.
It also would be an opportunity for Johnson to provide employment opportunities for others. For now, he’s the only full-time employee although he does bring people on from time to time to help with extra jobs.
Johnson hopes to have the Broad Avenue building ready by summer 2017. He said he’s excited about being part of the transforming neighborhood, one where he met his late wife of 25 years while they were both students at East High School.
Johnson’s dreams are big. He envisions operating out of two buildings that will also take on much bigger jobs, maybe even the kind that would require a crane to unload projects off trucks. And he wants to give back to the community, especially at a time when welding isn’t taught in public schools like it was when he was a young student.