Caribbean transplant Jerk Soul survived two hurricanes and a pandemic to serve St. Louis
For many restaurant owners, the coronavirus pandemic is an unrivaled obstacle in a notoriously precarious industry. But for Jerk Soul’s Zahra Spencer and Telie Woods, it maybe ranks in the top five. Opening a successful independent restaurant is a small miracle under ordinary circumstances and Spencer and Woods have held onto Jerk Soul through two hurricanes, a transcontinental move, the learning curve of first-time restaurateurs in an unfamiliar city, an expansion to offer a dining room during a pandemic and counting.
The pair met when Woods, a Chicago native, was apartment shopping in the Virgin Islands. He wanted to move to St. Thomas, where Spencer was living at the time. “I’m a Carribean lady through and through,” Spencer said. She was born in St. Croix; her mother is Jamaican and her father Antiguan.
Both Spencer and Woods worked in marketing but had always wanted to own a restaurant. “It was a perfect fit,” Woods said. “Once we met, you know you talk about your dreams and desires and goals and everything, and that was a mutual goal. So we decided to pursue that in the Virgin Islands.”
They hoped to cater to tourists with a beachy menu and ice cream, and enjoy life on the islands. They searched for the perfect location and found it close to where cruise ships landed in St. Thomas. The two were about to sign the lease on the restaurant when Hurricane Irma hit late in the summer of 2017.
Irma was the strongest Atlantic-forming hurricane ever recorded and the first category 5 to land on the Virgin Islands. The damage was catastrophic, and it didn’t end there. Hurricane Maria, the second category 5 to hit the islands in recorded history, came two weeks later.
The two weathered the first storm together in Spencer’s apartment. When they had barely come up for air after Irma passed, they found out Maria was on its way. Woods decided to try to make it back to the mainland. He had left everything he had ever known in Chicago to dive into life on an island that was now devastated. He was still living out of suitcases and the restaurant wasn’t happening – at least not in St. Thomas. Not now. He wanted to get out before it was too late.
But Irma had decimated the airport. Cruise ships started transporting people off the islands, trying to get them out before the second storm. Woods found another way. “I ended up getting on a small boat with about 25 other people that were trying to get to Puerto Rico,” he said. “I’m pretty sure you’ve seen what the storm did to Puerto Rico, right? I was there right when the storm started. They were about to close the airports down. My friend from St. Louis ended up getting me on one of the last flights – that’s how I ended up in St. Louis.”
Spencer stayed. “It wasn’t even a question because my family is still in the Virgin Islands,” she said. The infrastructure was already so damaged she knew that she wouldn’t be able to contact her family if she left. “It would probably be months before I could speak to my sisters or my parents. I didn’t want to take that risk.”
She considered going to St. Croix to be with her family after Woods left, but by the time her boat was leaving, the weather was too dangerous. She was stuck on her own. In the Carribean, hurricanes are a part of life, but this was unlike anything Spencer had experienced – the only thing she could compare it to was Hurricane Hugo, the category 4 storm that had decimated her hometown when she was around 6 years old.
“I lived on top of a hill and every house that you could see going to the ocean had no roof,” she said. “Every house was destroyed, including ours at the time.” She was upstairs when Hugo took off their roof. “My sister was a baby in my mom’s arms,” Spencer said. They hid in the bathtub, and her mother held a mattress over the tub to protect them. When the eye of the storm came and it was calm, her young family had to run downstairs, fighting through debris, before the outer band of the hurricane passed over them again. She spent the second part of the storm sitting on a counter because the lower level of their building started to flood.
“It makes you survivors,” she said. “The same thing happened with Maria and Irma – weeks after the storm, months after the storm, people didn’t have electricity or any luxuries you take for granted.” Spencer said she visited in January and there are still many signs of devastation – abandoned buildings, missing roofs that people can’t afford to replace – three years later.
As Maria tore through St. Thomas, Spencer stayed safe in her home. “I’m so happy I didn’t move,” she said. She had looked at a nice, bigger apartment before Woods came down and that place had disappeared like a magic trick in the storms. She heard stories: people who weathered part of the hurricane in cars because their homes were flooded; people missing; people who lost loved ones. An acquaintance’s husband attempted to secure something on his roof when the winds were too high and died in a fall. A missing woman’s bruised body was found clutching her baby in the British Virgin Islands; they had been swept away by the water. That one really stuck with her. “Only by the grace of God, that’s not me or my family members,” she said.
But her family was lucky; her childhood home is still standing; her parents’ businesses are doing well. “Even though there’s sad stories, there’s so many stories of triumph – of survival,” Spencer said. “You see the humanity of people in times like this. Strangers help strangers.” She feels blessed to have made it through relatively unscathed. That also meant she could say yes when Woods asked her to join him in St. Louis.
What started as a chance landing away from Hurricane Maria quickly turned into something more permanent. Woods had found a new restaurant location and was ready to put down roots. Conventional wisdom would advise against making huge decisions in a time of so much upheaval – how do you shift from a move to the Carribean, a second career commitment with a new partner, a devastating loss and traumatic experience to going all-in on a restaurant in a strange city? But for Woods, it didn’t feel like a reckless impulse.
He had already decided to uproot his life and start over in a new place. Coming back to the goal of the restaurant, even in the somewhat arbitrary city of St. Louis, was a return to stability – a way to come home when he no longer had one. “Before the storm, we were in restaurant mode,” he said. Just because the storms ruined his plans to open something on the beach didn’t mean he was giving up. “I was like, well, I’m here so that must mean this is where the restaurant is,” he said. When he found the location, Woods still wasn’t able to talk to Spencer much because cell service continued to be interrupted by hurricane damage on the islands, but he got her eventually.
“He was like, ‘You have to come!’ And I was like, ‘Where? I’ve never been to St. Louis in my life!’” She had visited the mainland before, but primarily just the coasts. She had never spent time in the Midwest aside from a quick trip to Chicago. It was a hard decision.
“I prayed about it; I meditated about it; I fasted for a while and you know the answer was clear,” Spencer said. “I asked God for guidance if I should go or not. I even went against my parents’ will. My parents were like, ‘You’re crazy. What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, this is what my spirit tells me to do, so I’m going to do it.’ … This was something I had always wanted – to open a brick and mortar. I took that leap of faith. I sold everything. I dwindled my life down to two suitcases and I got on a one-way ticket to St. Louis.”
She arrived a few days after Christmas in 2017, boarding a plane in 90 degree weather and exiting in snow. The cold shocked her in a way she was unprepared for. Visiting the mainland during winter as a tourist had been different; knowing she was here for good made the cold feel a lot worse.
Four months later, in April 2018, Jerk Soul sold out within three hours of its first service. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Spencer said. But they figured it out. Located on Salisbury Street in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis, the original location of Jerk Soul was embraced by its community and praised by local media. It quickly became known for its carryout menu of first-rate Caribbean classics like saltfish, jerk chicken and braised oxtails, along with comfort food like the intense Crispy Philly: a wrap filled with ribeye, cheese, spicy aioli, peppers and onions, and deep-fried.
“It’s a combination of both of our recipes and our backgrounds – stuff that Telie loved and grew up on in Chicago and stuff I grew up on and ate daily in the Virgin Islands,” Spencer said. The mac and cheese recipe comes from Woods’ grandmother. The coconut rice and peas is Spencer’s mom’s recipe. “The years of being in our mothers’ kitchens, learning and refining their craft, is what makes Jerk Soul what it is,” Spencer said.
Learning to run the business was harder than developing the menu. “We had a lot of steep learning curves,” Spencer said. “There’s a lot of things that we learned by mistakes. It was something that worked because we got the support of the neighborhood and both Telie and I were determined to make it work. He’s a no-nonsense, it’s-going-to-happen kind of person, and I am too. You put two people like that together and it’s going to happen.”
By year two, Spencer and Woods were ready to invest in a new space. Their original location was basically a carryout window with a foyer; the food was dialed in and they were ready to invest more in service – they wanted to make Jerk Soul a place that lent itself to longer conversations, somewhere people could sit and enjoy a meal. They found a spot on Cherokee Street that would allow them to add a dining area they planned to fill with bright colors, lively decor and artwork showcasing their cultural roots.
Then the coronavirus hit St. Louis. It was a disappointment not to be able to fill the dining room right away, but they still moved to the new location and reopened for carryout in May. And again, they consider themselves luckier than most. Because Jerk Soul was already a carryout concept, its business didn’t suffer like the majority of independent restaurants. “If anything, we saw an uptick in business,” Woods said.
Especially for restaurateurs, Spencer and Woods have a good attitude about the coronavirus. Their biggest headache has been shipping delays due to the pandemic. “Only half the decor I ordered is here,” Spencer said. “We have table stands but no tops yet, chair covers but no chairs. There’s so many moving parts we can’t control, but that doesn’t keep us from making good food.”
Instead of the singular challenge of operating a business through a global pandemic, it was the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police brutality that have most impacted Woods and Spencer this year.
“It hasn’t affected our business at all, but of course that’s something that affects us personally,” Woods said. “The unfortunate situation with George Floyd has really shaken the country and maybe it’s a good shaking. Maybe the country needs to be shaken.”
Spencer has been particularly affected – more than she had been by protests against police brutality in the past. “For the Ferguson protests, I remember sitting in my living room and watching the riots and stuff on CNN, but then going outside and going to the beach. … Even though the Virgin Islands is a US Territory and I’m a US citizen, living on the island and looking in, it’s different than actually driving down the street where the actual protests are happening,” she said. “Because these people look like us. It really hits home differently because this could be me. I could be pulled over by the police and be mistreated and end up dead. It’s heartbreaking to know that in 2020 we still experience the things that we’re experiencing and have to do certain things just to have our voices heard.”
This painful process of growth and changed perspective is something Spencer and Woods have experienced before. When they left successful careers in marketing for the physical labor of running a restaurant, the juggling of endless tasks as small business owners, there was no way to know everything they had signed up for, or how it would change them.
“Telie and I have talked about this. The people we were prior to this experience died a long time ago. We developed new skin, new hearts, new bodies – everything. It was hurdle after hurdle after hurdle, and we just kept jumping and jumping and jumping. It built great grit; it built strength; it built determination. I often think back, like, I didn’t know I had so much stamina to go through all of this stuff. ... But through the midst of the storm, we’re here.”
And they’re here for good. Spencer likes to say that St. Louis chose them. With all the disappointments and changed plans, this restaurant was somehow meant to be – and meant to be where it is. “St. Louis is home for Jerk Soul,” Woods said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to expand and have it in different parts of the city and outside of St. Louis as well. But this will always be home.”
Jerk Soul, 3108 Cherokee St., St. Louis, 314.601.3871, jerksoul.com
Editor's note: In the print edition of this article, Telie Woods' name was misspelled. We regret this error.
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