Elihu Brayboy decided to make good on a promise made to himself and, with little fanfare, closed Chief’s Creole Café.
Brayboy recently celebrated his 74th birthday, and the daily grind of running a restaurant for 10 years takes a toll. Also, he and his wife, Carolyn, are eager to devote more time to the next chapter in their ongoing quest to help revitalize the culturally significant Deuces Corridor in South St. Petersburg.
The abrupt closure Friday of an establishment that helped catalyze the Deuces renaissance – one bowl of renowned gumbo at a time – caught many off guard. However, Mr. B., as he is affectionately known, and refers to himself, knew it was time to pass the torch.
“I couldn’t put on the brakes,” Brayboy explained. “I couldn’t slow it down to 50% or 75%. You got to be 100% in the business or not.”
The decision came exactly one month after his March 7 birthday. Brayboy told himself, and Carolyn, that he would stop hauling supplies, making payroll and ensuring the café lived up to its reputation by the time he turned 75.
In addition, he noted they worked relentlessly for the past decade to accomplish their goal of changing some of the negative perceptions surrounding 22nd Street South. Following a “hard stop” as restaurateurs, the longtime residents remain committed to helping the area achieve some of its former glory.
“What we want to do from here is look at some young entrepreneurs – preferably food entrepreneurs – that would take this site and take it to another level,” Brayboy said. “It’s going to be a good future.”
Mr. B said he would retain ownership of the historic facility, built in 1939. There is “zero” consideration of selling the property – unless someone “waves a check so big I get choked up.”
He added that is unlikely to happen, and said the decision would ultimately reside with his granddaughters.
Brayboy is also open to letting someone carry on the Chief’s Creole Cafe moniker. While people are already “aggressively” inquiring about a lease, the Brayboys want to ensure the right fit.
The next chapter in their rich history is providing housing for people they consider essential workers. With a touch of sarcasm, Brayboy said others might remember them as those who had to go to work during the pandemic.
Those employees cannot work remotely and must travel to jobs, even if soaring costs and gentrification prevent them from living nearby. Brayboy noted they often make less than $20 an hour and are housing-insecure.
“What we want to do is bring some security back,” he said. “By providing some affordable units for their price points on the 22nd Street corridor. We need more people living on the corridor like it used to be.”
The Brayboys have bought and restored several other properties in the Deuces and recently announced plans for a uniquely affordable housing project for those earning around $35,000 annually. The development would sit on a vacant lot between Lorene’s Fish House and the historic Royal Theater, now home to a Boys and Girls Club.
While zoning restrictions prohibit buildings over three stories in the area, Brayboy now has more time to lobby local politicians for changes.
An affinity for the Deuces is ingrained in the couple, as the two fell in love while growing up in South St. Petersburg during segregation. Much of the once-thriving corridor was vacant and boarded up when they bought the property at the intersection of 22nd Street South and 9th Avenue in 2013.
Before that, the Deuces Corner was a vibrant hub of Black businesses, entertainment and homes during the Jim Crow Era. The nearby Manhattan Casino, now undergoing much-needed repairs, was once a preferred venue for musical icons like Louis Armstrong, Etta James and B.B. King.
A prominent mural featuring Armstrong adorns the side of Chief’s Creole Café, a welcoming landmark to visitors traveling south on the Deuces.
However, False perceptions of the area permeated the city. Many believed the area was unsafe and that a restaurant would fail. They were wrong.
Although the Brayboys were repeatedly denied business loans and told the restaurant would never attract patrons from across the city – particularly white residents – they proved the naysayers wrong through hard work and determination.
Mr. B., ever the storyteller, often relays how Carolyn would run into the street to pick up trash. To his dismay, the habit persisted.
Brayboy said they took a risk that paid off due to loyal patrons who helped prove the doubters wrong. He expressed his sincere gratitude and noted the area’s “phenomenal turnaround” was partly due to residents and visitors of all races coming together over authentic Creole meals.
“What reduced the racism and bigotry was good food,” Brayboy said. “You can solve a lot of problems if you eat together.”