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BURGERS, FRIES AND A COMMITMENT TO A BETTER COMMUNITY

The car.
It is the thing you can't argue with. A big gleaming symbol, conspicuous in the parking lot at the crossroad of Jefferson and William. Irrefutable proof that an African-American can not just survive, but thrive, doing business in the inner city.

If you somehow miss the black Lincoln Town Car, Black Tie Edition, there is the thick Rolex on his wrist. Or the daughter he put through college, the son now at Norfolk State, the other daughter running his store on East Delevan, the big house in the suburbs.

But what most people see is the car.

It is 4,000 pounds of evidence. More than a success, Jim Rice is further proof that there is Another Way. That the road to riches doesn't have to be paved with illegal acts or substances.

Like millions of teen-agers, Rice started at McDonald's at 16, flipping burgers for $1.75 an hour. And he never really left.

Married at 18, two kids by 20, he worked burgers and another job while taking a full load at the University of Akron. He moved up the company ladder, from shift supervisor to store manager in his native Ohio to -- since moving here seven years ago -- owner of three franchises.

His second inner-city place, at Jefferson and William, opened last month. (The other is at East Delavan and Grider.) There was shrimp and champagne, with pony rides for the kids. A celebration of personal success and new business for the community.

"Any young person who works for me knows I started here 30 years ago," said Rice, a man with the body of an ex-linebacker and the voice of a librarian.

"It shows that there's a future here -- or in anything -- if you apply yourself."

But there's more to it than making money and bringing water to a capitalistic desert -- though that, in itself, is plenty.

Rice isn't just a symbol, he's an asset. In America, among the most powerful forces for good is a capitalist with heart. Particularly in neighborhoods where banks and venture capitalists fear to tread.

"A lot of times in the inner city," said Rice, "businesses come in, grab the money and run."

With his East Side restaurants, he's running two campuses of what might be called Jim Rice University.

Jim Rice U. All applicants accepted: ex-cons, wayward youth, wise asses. Entrants get not just a job, but a dose of structure and -- for those who hang in -- a permanent injection of work ethic.

The requirements: Show up on time, work hard, follow the rules. Reward will follow.

The message is not lost on the hundreds of teen-agers who've worked for him. Who know his story.

"Here's a guy who didn't start out filthy rich," said Cherron Smith, 19, who worked two stints for Rice. "He came up the hard way."

And not by way of Wall Street, but McDonald's. The stereotypical low-wage, dead-end job. The stereotype doesn't always hold, but the message is clear: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

"Some of the kids who work here can't wait to see him," said Terry Hall, 38, a shift supervisor. "I think they fantasize about being him. They see the success and think: 'Maybe I can turn out to be something. Maybe I don't have to sell drugs to get that stuff.' "

In the seven years since Rice opened his first place on Grider Street, hundreds of young people worked behind his counters.

Melissa Taylor, one of Rice's store managers, has been with him since he came. In the parking lot, a few feet from the restaurant table where she sits, is her Ford Explorer.

Rice's value goes beyond bringing jobs to neighborhoods where they're in short supply.

When Ms. Taylor needed $700 for the security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment, Rice fronted her the money. When he upgrades vehicles, Rice sells his old cars to employees at rock-bottom price, the payments deducted interest-free from their checks.

"Man, who told you about that?" said Rice, laughing and shaking his head. "Heck, if I know them and know they'll be around for a while, I'll do it. It's tough for a lot of young people to get credit."

It's why the value of such a man goes beyond his seat on three community boards or the food he regularly donates to a local ministry.

Rice understands what only someone in the community can: It's easier to get into trouble in some neighborhoods than in others. If you're living in Seattle, you're more likely to get wet than if you're in Arizona.

"In this environment, a lot of people get into trouble," said Rice. "I don't think me or society should just wash our hands of them."

One or two slips doesn't necessarily define a man.

"You've got to give a person a shot. If it doesn't work out, it's just one person. Maybe the next one will be different. Or the next one. When they get older, sometimes people get wiser."

He pauses, chuckles.

"Although some people just get older."

'We'll call you'

Time was running out on Terry Hall when he walked into the Grider Street store. On work release after serving five years on a drug charge, Hall had six weeks to find a job. Five were up.

"I'd had a couple of second interviews," said Hall, 38, a soft-spoken man who wears designer glasses with his work polyesters. "But as soon as the record came up, their attitude changed. It was always, 'We'll call you.' "

Rice hired him.

"He said what happened in the past was in the past. I appreciated that, very much."

Rice then made sure Hall -- who had an 11 o'clock curfew -- had a ride home every night, so he wouldn't be on the street if he worked late.

That was more than two years ago. Last week, Hall -- who trained the cook staff for the new place on Jefferson -- got his second raise in a month.

Rice's attitude extends beyond the restaurant doors. He just joined the board of directors of a local ministry that counsels drug addicts.

"There's just too many disadvantaged people out there," said Rice. "You need to help, in my opinion."

Rice's joining the board completed a circle. The ministry is run by James Giles and Anthony Brown. Both are alumni of James Rice U. Both served jail time, Giles for bad checks and Brown for selling drugs. They found God behind bars, came out, needed a job. They got a lot of "we'll call you," until they walked into Rice's restaurant.

Giles -- like Rice, in his mid-40s -- got a promotion and two raises in a year there.

"We'd talk, he'd tell me his story," said Giles. "In the early days, he was working two jobs, going to school, raising a family. He didn't run, like some men tend to do.

"It's encouraging for people around here, to see a black-owned business in the inner city. It's a signpost."

There are new homes and other signs of life in the streets around the new restaurant. But as of 1990, two of every five families got public assistance. Nearly half the working-age residents didn't have jobs.

"A lot of these kids," said Rice, "really don't have a work ethic, because a lot of people around here aren't working."

Cherron Smith was 15 when he started at the East Delavan restaurant. He'd come in fashionably late, baggy pants hanging off his butt, wearing an attitude.

Rice eventually let him go.

"Some kids," said Rice, "come here and find out a great truth: Although Mom may put up with it at home, Mom isn't paying you."

Smith came back a couple of years later, after a construction job dried up.

"He said: 'Mr. Rice, I'm getting married. I'd like the job back. And another thing I want to tell you -- I learned my lesson."

Rice rehired him.

Smith since has gotten married. A baby is on the way. A couple of weeks ago, Smith -- now a wise old man of 19 -- asked Rice about a store manager slot.

He showed up for the interview in banker clothes: crisp beige suit, dress shirt, black tie.

"Every job I've had since," said Smith, "I carried the same mentality I got from this place."

His little brother and a cousin now work for Rice as well.

Rice says he gets a lot of great kids. One family, the Smiths (no relation to Cherron Smith), produces an assembly line of model citizens.

"They're all polite, neatly dressed, well-spoken. There's more of those kids out there than people realize.

"But you know those kids are going to do well in life. What makes me really feel good is when the knuckleheads turn out OK."

Gold in the streets

For Rice, it's not just do as I say. It's do as I do.

He's a regular behind the counter, drowning baskets of fries in oil, ringing up customers, flipping burgers.

"I expected him to just stop by once in a while," said Yolanda Andrews, 18, who works at the new restaurant. "But he comes back and fixes the food like everybody else.

"You feel like, 'If he's doing it, we should all do it.' "

Rice works a 70-hour week, dividing his time among his three franchises (the third is at the Thruway rest stop in Angola).

On a recent morning at his East Delavan place, he asked one customer about her sick cousin, then jokingly offered a job to a woman "because you're in here all the time anyway." He excused himself to peek into a stroller. It's not just P.R. On the nearby counter is a framed photo of Rice's five grandkids.

The more one knows him, the more the flashy car, personalized plates and Rolex seem out of character. There are no traces of arrogance or egotism in his manner. He has 250 employees and, said one store manager, "probably knows all their names." The conspicuous examples of prosperity are simply how a quiet man shouts, "I made it."

Aside from everything else, Rice's success is evidence that -- despite conventional wisdom -- there's gold in them thar streets. If one knows them well enough.

Rice selected the Jefferson-William site. He saw the blocks of newer subsidized housing nearby (with more on the way), the crossroads with two lanes of traffic in each direction. He factored in the business tax break that comes with the neighborhood.

"I went to City Hall and got the census tract information," said Rice. "This area has the densest population in the city, and the highest percentage of kids. I thought it was peculiar, with so many people, that there weren't more places to eat."

He staked his claim.

Rice is doing even more business at his new place on Jefferson than on East Delavan. Before he came, on this corner, there was a parking lot.

There are limits to the man's reach. He can't redeem the incorrigible, heal the sick, turn addicts into teetotalers.

But he can give some people a second chance. Show others that there is another way. And give to many a valuable gift, the work ethic.

The irrefutable proof of what work can do is there in the parking lot. Gleaming black, with leather seats, soft top, moon roof.

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