Jesus, Others and Yourself: Taziki’s Keith Richards

Keith Richards began his restaurant career cooking chicken in a K-Mart kitchen and waiting tables at Olive Garden. Today he serves as Chief Development Officer for Taziki’s, which he founded in 1998 with an original location off Highway 280 in Birmingham.

After a vacation to Greece in 1997, Keith Richards was inspired to recreate the same richness of community he experienced there in his home town of Birmingham. Opening his first Taziki’s restaurant in 1998 was a leap of faith quickly bolstered by the idea of giving back. Now with locations in 17 different states, Richards reflects on how his Christian upbringing contributed to his drive to succeed and his commitment to employing and inspiring special needs teens and young adults in the communities he serves.

Growing Up in Birmingham. An alumnus of Green Acres Elementary, Charles A. Brown Middle School, and Midfield High School, Richards grew up in Ensley and says his strongest memories of childhood involve being outdoors. “Back then, of course, we had no devices that would distract us,” he remembers. “We had an area called The Trails where we rode our bikes and shot BB guns and chased squirrels and went to the Boys and Girls Club. That’s all we did—that and play baseball. Church on Sundays. It’s almost like a country song.” Richards’ family attended Fairview United Methodist Church, and as far back as he can remember, every store in Ensley was closed for Sunday services. “Sunday was the Sabbath, and that was the day we went to Sunday School, went to what we called Big Church, and then at night we would have youth group.” Even on vacations, Richards says his family would find a place to worship.

In his teens, Richards worked at Camp Sumatanga, an experience that strengthened his faith and gave him a taste of servanthood and pointing others to God. “During those impressionable years—16, 17, 18 years old when some teens are starting to wonder—it grounded me even more.” His contributions to the spiritual growth of his campers, he says, was primarily directing them toward the Lord revealed in nature. “Scripture is so important, but my perspective was more of look what God has given us.

Keith and Amy Richards married twice in 1992—once at Peavine Falls at Oak Mountain State Park with a preacher but no paperwork, then again six months later at Canterbury United Methodist Church. They opened their first Taziki’s restaurant 20 years ago with the mission “to create an environment that combines extraordinary food with the meaningful human connection missing from much of society today — all to help people achieve a deeper, more sustaining form of happiness.”

Richards’ father, Joe Richards turned 79 this past November, and inside his birthday card Keith Richards wrote, “Thanks for being my hero.” “He’s the one I strive to be like, not only with his faith but with his heart, his goodness,” Richards says, noting that his mother passed away nearly six years ago. “We had a Bible School class at church growing up, and it was the J.O.Y. class. It stands for Jesus, Others and Yourself. That has always stuck with me. I saw my parents live that.”

Growing a Business. After jobs at a Kmart cafeteria and Olive Garden followed by a 10-year career at Bottega under award-winning Chef Frank Stitt, Richards and his wife used their home as collateral to build his first Taziki’s location off Highway 280. Richards reflects on how his parents’ example served as inspiration. “My father was a telephone lineman for South Central Bell / BellSouth, and I knew what hard work looked like. It was a leap of faith… We didn’t have the money. There wasn’t an option. We could not fail,” he recalls of Taziki’s beginnings. “Ultimately, however, the challenge was how do we start giving back? That was the first thing to do. How do we get into the community to let people know we are here and who we are? Faith has a lot to do with that. You pray for success; sometimes it doesn’t come, sometimes it does, but prayer and hard work is a great combination to reap rewards.”

Giving Back. Giving back for Richards started with a chance meeting with Shelby County Schools Job Coach Cindy Vinson while on a cruise vacation. Bored with the band playing one evening on the ship, on a whim Keith offered to stand in as a drummer. An experienced musician, while he jammed on stage, Amy Richards struck up a conversation with Vinson, who was sitting nearby. Vinson asked if Taziki’s would consider employment for students with special needs. The Richards said “Yes,” and since then Taziki’s has been helping local students and young adults with challenges realize their potential, earn a paycheck, relate to peers, and be a part of a team. Richards adds that meaningful employment also meant relief, in a way, for the students’ parents. “Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to the challenges that the parents of children with special needs have. Today, if I can allow that parent 12-15 hours a week to pray, yoga, tennis, whatever their passion is, then I’ll do it.”

“They say God works in mysterious ways,” Keith Richard says of he and wife Amy being the parents of two sets of twins, one conceived with the assistance of fertility specialists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and another conceived naturally. “I think it was just something that God said you’re doing something right in your life, and I’m going to bless you again.” Seen here are Keith, Amy, Oliver (15), Charley (13), Margaux (13), and Maggie (15). Photo: Bernard Troncale

The Richards and Vinson also began the H.O.P.E. (Herbs Offering Personal Enrichment) program in 2012, which purchases herbs for Taziki’s restaurants grown by special needs students at area schools. Being taught how to grow, harvest and sell cilantro, rosemary, thyme, parsley and rosemary gives the students opportunities to practice social skills, learn the value of money, set goals, and follow through with plans. Richards is expanding the program to include at-risk students as well and hopes that in 2018 the program will become a nonprofit organization. He hopes that all of his friends in the Birmingham restaurant business will consider following his lead in cooking with locally grown herbs. “God has blessed me, and I’ve said a thousand times you have to give back. That’s the plan. That’s God’s plan. And, of course, I don’t do it for extra wing points or any kind of halo points. I do it because that’s the way that my parents raised me.”

Richards suggests that choosing to make 2018 a year for giving can be simple. It doesn’t require finding needs to meet worldwide. “In our own backyard, there are people that are hungry, people that don’t know Christ, people that are struggling on a daily basis that we can help,” says Richards. “Find something dear to your heart…what makes your heart flourish?”

 

  • Camille Smith Platt 

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