Chris “Zimbe” Smith has carried his inmate ID from Kershaw Correctional Institution in his wallet since he was released in 2016.
The 39-year-old looks at his mugshot on the card every day.
“It reminds me, that I will never go back there again,” he said.
Smith sat in the shade last month in front of a brick three-business strip on the corner of Franklin Street and Murray Avenue. It’s home to Zimbe Dogs, a hotdog restaurant he owns with his brother Chad Martin.
“I got to keep going … to show people that you can actually change your life,” he said as he waved to neighbors passing by April 6.
Throughout the sunny afternoon, regulars and new visitors came to the slide-up window to order all sorts of cooked goodness and to find community.
The journey that took Smith to this spot was a difficult one but one he’s proud to share.
Years in the foster care system led him through highs and lows. In his later teenage years, he was adopted by Chad Martin’s parents, a family he holds on to dearly.
A series of sentencing took him out of prison six years ago and gave him a chance at a fresh start, he said.
After jobs fell through because of employers seeing he had a criminal record, Smith saw a hotdog cart for sale on an app and decided to buy it.
He began selling hotdogs outside a gas station making as many as he could. One day he even gave up, but the community just wouldn’t let him.
“People were talking about them hotdogs,” Smith said.
So he kept making them.
Then cheeseburgers and deep-fried corn.
Then shrimp and grits.
From weekends to Sunday dinners to every day, the community kept coming back for more hotdogs.
And in 2020 that meant 11,000 more, Smith said.
“I want to see other Black kids, and other Black people, say, ‘I ain’t got to be out here on these streets’,” Smith said. “You can actually go from prison to a business owner.”
And so when the opportunity came forward to open shop at Murray Avenue, he started his new venture.
His restaurant has been the source for different events like last month when he made food for the “We Outside” community event.
Community events have impacted the nearby neighborhoods for years.
When Maurice Martin DJ’d at an event at Westside community in 2020, he was encouraging community members to vote and that’s when he realized Smith didn’t know he could vote after being in a correctional institution.
“That’s when his eyes got big,” Martin recalled of Smith. “I have opportunity to voice my opinion on paper?”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, felony disenfranchisement prevents tens of thousands in South Carolina from voting. State law says convicted felons loose their right to vote but can regain that right once they have completed the probation or parole that accompanies their conviction.
Martin wants everyone in the area to know they have a voice in voting, he said.
“We had a voter registration two years ago there (Zimbe Dogs); it brought the community together,” he said. “It’s always a place you can come together as a unit.”
Besides hurdling re-entry tasks like voting, Smith sees a lot of people struggling to get out of the prison cycle especially since finding work is difficult.
“People don’t treat you equal when you got a background,” he said. “You got to be strong enough not to go back.”
And strong he was.
Zimbe Dogs continues to be a place where neighbors gather over hotdogs covered in chili or fried fish and cheesy grits speckled with sausage.