John Calhoun Bishop, Sr. was born October 15, 1921, in Duncanville, Alabama, a small community 12 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa. Thirty-seven years later, two big events happened in Tuscaloosa. Paul “Bear” Bryant became the head football coach at the University of Alabama, and in the Jerusalem Heights neighborhood, Bishop, also known as “Big Daddy,” opened his first Dreamland Café. A brick mason for many years, Bishop longed for another way to support his family. He had narrowed it down to opening either a mortuary or a restaurant when he got down on his knees and prayed for guidance. Legend has it that God told him in a dream that night to build a café on the land next to his home, and on October 3, 1958, Bishop made that dream a reality.
With his brick mason experience, Bishop, his brother, and some friends built the original Dreamland Café with their own hands. The first Dreamland Café is located about two miles from the intersection of Hwy 82 and Interstate 59 just south of Tuscaloosa in an area known as Jerusalem Heights. In the beginning, it wasn’t just ribs and white bread. Lillie Brant Bishop, Bishop’s wife, came up with the first menu, which included several items in addition to ribs, such as fried fish sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and hamburgers. Ms. Lillie, an excellent cook, worked side-by-side with Bishop. Although there were several delicious items on the menu, what kept customers coming back were the mouthwatering ribs, made with the Bishops’ secret sauce, and the warmth customers felt every time they passed through the doors.
In the restaurant’s early days, because of segregation, Dreamland was a place where African Americans would go to have a good time and good food. The only whites that would dine at Dreamland were Bishop’s food and restaurant supplies vendors. Bishop didn’t discriminate. “Everyone’s green to me,” he liked to say. Bishop and Ms. Lillie made their café décor warm and inviting with a big bar, a few tables and booths, and a potbellied stove. They made diners feel like they were attending a big family reunion with ribs and white bread. Bishop always said, “You should be good to the grandparents,” so his own children, Jeannette and John, Jr., would help customers to their cars and open the door for them. The point is that Bishop didn’t just open a café; he made a place that was home to his children and family and extended that feeling of love to everyone that came by.
During the 1970’s and 80’s, when the University of Alabama football teams played in Tuscaloosa, sports broadcasters often visited Dreamland for a sample of the local flavor. Many times they would end up bragging about their Dreamland experience during their national telecasts. As a consequence of these on-air mentions, and the grass roots marketing ability of Bishop’s son, John, Jr., Dreamland’s notoriety and revenues began to grow. Also during that time, John Jr. and UA’s head football coach Ray Perkins developed a great friendship. To further improve the family business, in 1987, Bishop’s daughter, Jeannette Bishop-Hall, returned from Chicago where she was working for Mayor Harold Washington and took over the day to day operations of the restaurant. Under her leadership, Dreamland experienced an unmatched period of growth.