Chief's Creole Cafe: A symbol of South St. Pete revitalization

On any given day, you can find Elihu Brayboy smiling and shaking hands at a quaint little restaurant nestled in a neighborhood with more than its fair share of strife.

Around Chief's Creole Cafe, they know him simply as Mr. B.

Just around the corner, Mrs. B- his wife of 37 years, Carolyn- is close by.

This is their place. They took the corner store of their childhood and turned it into the restaurant of their dreams- One Mr. B's mother- Mary Brayboy Jones- would be proud of.

"This is a tribute to her," Carolyn said, "That's what we used to call her. Her nickname was 'Chief’. She had a little catering business. She catered the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, Melissa Manchester and I would work on the weekends."

In those days, this part of 22nd Street South was alive. They called it the Dueces.

It was a time when musicians like Duke Ellington and BB King played the Manhattan Casino.

Louis Armstrong loved St. Petersburg, which is why his face graces the side of their restaurant- a reminder of the city's music mecca history.

To hear them tell it, what's happened to the area in the decades since is infuriating, frustrating and heartbreaking.

"It used to be a rough area of town, however, we knew it before it was a rough area of town- in its heyday,” said Mr. B. “This was the business district of an African American- 152 businesses up and down this 22nd Street corridor.” 

Bringing this area of south St. Petersburg back has been a long hard road for a lot of reasons- one of which Mr. B shared quite candidly.

"The media will make a reference to a negative situation and really pound in the ‘SOUTH St. Petersburg’, so many people had a bad image of south St. Petersburg. I've lived in St Petersburg most of my life."

There are issues the neighborhood faces that are hard to ignore- ones the Brayboys admit need to be addressed- but there is plenty of good happening, too. And continuing it lies in the hands of the next generation.

"I think there's a lot of hope for the youth in our community," Carolyn said, "They are certainly smart. They just need to find their niche and what it is they want to do and how they want to contribute."

But there is a bigger problem. The last bastion of true racism, they say, is in the banking industry. Financing for this area is tough to get.

"That's really what it's going to take- is people willing to invest capital," she said, "Let's get real; I might have a great idea. I want to do a small business- small businesses are the backbone of our community- but I need money to do it. Not free money. Low interest loans, micro loans."

And buy in.

The Brayboys employ people in the community- a small workforce of 12. One of them is 28-year-old Lorenza Jackson. He has a slightly troubled past, but wants a better life for him and his son. They think he deserves one, so they gave him his shot with a few exceptions.

For starters, he needed to get his GED. So he agreed. And just a few days ago, he was proud to say he completed the last exam.

This is what the Brayboys are about: Healing the south St. Petersburg community from the inside out.

They bought several buildings along the 22nd Street corridor, and after years of deals falling through, businesses are coming.

Gallery 909- an art gallery, Deuces BBQ, the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum- which they hope will expland- and St. Pete College just built a new 45,000 square foot campus in Midtown.

Carolyn is also part of the neighborhood development association “Deuces Live”. Their primary mission is a beautification project at the Interstate 275 overpass and 9th. They want street lights and street-scaping to shine a light on the area that's been dark for too long.

Chief's Creole Cafe stands as a symbol of hope- of what could be- and business is good.

Visitors from Naples to the Netherlands are trying out the Brayboy's unbelievable menu, savoring those family recipes made with creole soul.

"We think we are a destination restaurant, not a south St. Pete restaurant. We are a destination restaurant," Mr. B said with defiant pride.

And that's the difference- an important distinction.  A city unified.

For the Brayboys, it's about tradition, respect, deep-seeded pride and turning the lights back on in a part of town that once shined so bright.

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