You Choose to Love: a Davis Wayne's + Mother's Day story.

Meet Uncle Jim. Get soaked in the rain. Savor greens that took two years to perfect at a restaurant without any recipes.

You Choose to Love: a Davis Wayne's + Mother's Day story.
Cynthia Wood, Antonia Poland, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

Meet Uncle Jim. Get soaked in the rain. Savor greens that took two years to perfect at a restaurant without any recipes.

"Love is the answer to every question you could ask."

She was walking in the rain. Others were running, squirming, rushing to their cars, but Cynthia Wood? It was pouring ... and she was smiling. Drenched and smiling.

"I was drawn to her smile," said Antonia Poland. "Her eyes. I want to be happy like that. Anybody that can smile like that can be truly happy."

They were miles apart, had never even met. But when Poland saw the Facebook photo of Wood in the rain ... smiling, in the rain ... she knew.

“She was free,” said Poland. "And I knew I wanted that type of freedom."

That's where our story begins.

Cynthia Wood, Antonia Poland, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

Mother's Day is about moms. But, behind all the mothers, there's something else: love. Safety. The feeling in your chest that spreads like warmth when you know: I am safe, I am home, I am loved.

That feeling? Wherever we find it, we find Mothers' Day.

Even at a restaurant.

Especially at a restaurant.

In the 1990s, gay men were dying in devastating ways in terrifying numbers.

"We were burying people with no family and no preacher would even come say last words at a gravesite," remembers Wood.

These were the early days of HIV/AIDS. Wood was working for Chattanooga CARES. She witnessed the hell of living in the closet, how even in sickness, there can be something worse: shame and isolation. 

“And fear,” she said. “You see what secrets and lies do to people. It's real easy for people to become Other-ed."

Wood spent 30 years in non-profits, minority health care and community education. 

"It made me a better person,” she remembers. “It made me look at people differently."

And life.

So, when the rainstorm opened up, she didn’t run.

When a relationship opened up, she didn’t run. 

When the restaurant opportunity opened up, she didn’t run. 

She stayed ten-toes down and connected. Holding tight with herself and others. 

So today, when folks come eat at her Ooltewah restaurant– all types of folks, carrying joys and burdens known and unknown – she’ll just smile, listen, hug. She doesn’t run. 

"You choose to love,” she said.

Cynthia Wood, Antonia Poland, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

Ask Antonia Poland where she met Cynthia Wood, the love of her life, and she’ll say it was a post.

"I met Cynthia on Facebook in 2010," said Poland. 

"She stalked me," laughed Wood.

Poland was in Chicago. Wood, here in Chattanooga. On Facebook, they were part of a larger interest group. Wood had written a romance novel called Love Wins. Her book – and posts – were life-positive. So ... one morning after church, Wood was walking back to her car after stopping by the store. Headed home to watch the NBA Playoffs. The sky opened up.

It's just water, Wood thought. Sometimes, you gotta love a walk in the rain.

She snapped a photo. Posted it to the FB group.

Poland saw it.

Most people run, she thought. But this woman didn’t. 

Cynthia Wood, Antonia Poland, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

These are flip-phone days, so romance took a while. Poland eventually traveled to Chattanooga, met Wood and, in a long story made short: they fell in love and got married.

The two have that easy, deep streak. Their bonds are bone-tough and you feel it, as though you're leaning up against something strong and secure. 

When your own well is deep, you're able to pass along healing water to others. At their core, Wood and Poland – as partners, mothers, businesswomen – do one thing really well: they love on folks.

"These wonderful women have had a tremendous impact on the way I see myself, my future and life," said Cloey Crum, who works with them. "They’ve become my role models for the life I want to live … I want nothing more than for one day to be able to pour love into people the way they pour it into me."

Ask their son, Greyson.

Greyson Wood, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

"They have consistently instilled discipline and showed me the ropes of navigating life every step of the way. They always treat people with respect and welcome each and every person with open arms. They always see your potential," he said.

In 2012, they opened Dipped Fresh, a gourmet deli and dessert shop in Coolidge Park.

"It was wonderful," said Wood, "but required more time than these two working mothers had to give."

They shifted to catering and online dessert sales, soon opening a cafe in the Hunter Museum of American Art.

It worked ... until it didn't. 

"We felt like the singing frog in Looney Tunes," said Wood. "Crickets. Just crickets."

They took a step back, regrouped and blew the dust off an old dream: a new restaurant.

Someone soon approached: would you be interested in building a restaurant out of a space in Cambridge Square? 

Yes, they said. 

Wonderful. You've got 59 days.

The kitchen alone seemed insurmountable. 

"Four cleaning companies turned down the job," Wood said.

Somehow, 59 days later, on Oct. 1, 2018, they opened their new Ooltewah restaurant.

They called it Davis Wayne's.

Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

"We named it after my fathers," said Wood.

Her stepfather's last name? Davis. Her birth father? Wayne.

"My father passed away when I was 10 years old. My mother remarried when I was 13. So, I was blessed with two great dads and that is where the name comes from," she said.

Not Wayne Davis?

"We chose Davis Wayne's because of the look and feel of the name. It flows and we think it's sexier that way," she said.

If their restaurant name is rooted in family, so are the walls, covered in photos of ancestors: her fathers, mentors, friends like the late Chris Ramsey – "During Covid, he'd spend $500 a month buying gift cards," Wood said – and Uncle Jim. (Just wait. You won't believe it.)

Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

"Everything we do is about family," said Poland.

Food as a Verb thanks Easy Bistro & Bar, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

Thanks to two-time James-Beard nominee Erik Niel, Easy Bistro & Bar offers unparalleled and deeply thoughtful dining in the heart of West Village.

Davis Wayne's serves home-cooked, up-scale Southern comfort food. When we visited, there was mac and cheese, Brussels sprouts, two kinds of greens on the stove. Pot roast. Pinto beans. Fried corn and collards. Mashed-by-hand potatoes and sweet onion gravy.

Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

Search high and low for recipes; you won’t find any. Poland and Wood teach cooking by feel, intuition, sensitivity. It is understudy apprenticeship and old school magic. Greyson? He spent a year in the kitchen, mastering sweet potatoes and candied yams.

A full year. Maybe longer.

“That’s how long it takes to master it,” Poland said. “To learn how to make both kinds of greens, they had to understudy for two years.”

Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

Folks can tell. Essence has been to town. TV shows, too.

“We cook from the soul and heart. It’s about senses, the love we put into the food,” Poland said. “I teach them to cook by rhythm, sight and taste. It's like music. Learning by ear, developing proper technique and expressing the love you feel when creating gets translated into each dish we prepare."

Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

They serve food they grew up eating. Their meals carry these precious transmissions from family long gone, kitchens long forgotten. Mac and cheese from Poland's aunt. Sweet potatoes from Poland’s grandmother. Gravy from Wood's grandfather.

Through their non-profit, The TryLove Foundation, they provide business classes to their employees. Financial literacy between shifts. Opening Davis Wayne's, they made a Golden Rule vow: we'll treat our employees like we wish we'd been treated.

They close doors every Sunday and Monday to rest. They fund staff retreats: a Hawks-Spurs game ("Everyone deserves a chance to see Wemby!" Wood said). Even beach trips.

“Who am I if I’ve got everything and everybody around me has nothing?” said Poland.

“If you’re Republican, Democrat, Independent, MAGA, they come in and I serve them. At end of the day, we are all people.”

They helped one staff member buy her family's first home. Teenagers don't apply for jobs. Parents bring them in, pushing them into the arms of Wood and Poland, saying: here, please pour into my child.

On a server's wages, you can make enough to buy a home. No staff person pays for a meal on the days they work. 

“Everybody that works here, eats here. I can’t ask you to sell this food if you don't know what it tastes like. And I can’t charge you for it. That’s ridiculous,” Wood said.

"Working for them is a blessing,” said Crum. “They treat everyone like family. They’re always willing to sit and talk with you and from personal experience, sometimes that is all you need. They’ll listen to almost anybody, even strangers who come into the restaurant. They’ll give you their best advice when asked and you’ll never walk away from a conversation with them disappointed."

They learned love and hard work are two sides of the same coin. Poland's mom scooped ice-cream for 25 cents a cone instead of taking welfare.

"I was able to help her retire early," Poland said.

Their lead server is James Brantley, an old friend and former zoologist who came out of retirement to help mentor younger staff members. To them, he's not James.

"Mr. James," corrected Wood. "You can't call James by his first name. We teach business. We teach life. We teach them to be respectful to their elders."

"Mr." James Brantley, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

We're sitting there, 45 minutes into the interview, when Wood starts telling this story about her uncle.

"Uncle Jim," said Wood.


"Uncle Jim," she said. "You know. Jim Lawson."

Wood's uncle is Rev. James Lawson, now 95, one of the most significant civil rights leaders in American history. Famous for leading the student movement to desegregate downtown Nashville, he also trained Dr. King in the nonviolent resistance methods of Gandhi. A legendary foundation of freedom-fighting strength and instruction, Lawson was nominated to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

You know, Uncle Jim.

Rev. James Lawson, Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

"Uncle Jim is married to my Aunt Delores," said Wood.

She drops stories: Uncle Jim in the kitchen helping make enchiladas, Uncle Jim ministering to James Earl Ray in prison, who then made him a doll, Uncle Jim still carrying his own bags, talking late into the night, still confused as to why anyone would make a fuss over him. (That Essence article? It was on Poland's Strawberry Daiquiri; she named it after Uncle Jim.)

So, yeah. When Jim Lawson is family, you know a thing or two about the power of radical, transformative love. 

“If you’re Republican, Democrat, Independent, MAGA, they come in and I serve them,” said Poland. “At the end of the day, we are all people.”

That’s why Davis Wayne’s is our Mother's Day story. Whether you're terrified in the closet, running from a rainstorm or suffering in one of the many prisons this world holds, Poland and Wood have a message for you.

“Food is a love language," Poland said. "Food can bring us all together. It is all based in love.”

And love?

“Love is the answer to every question,” said Wood, “that you could ever ask.”

Davis Wayne's, Ooltewah, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger (

All design by Alex DeHart

All words by David Cook (

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This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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