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School garden project celebrates community entrepreneurs

Carolyn Brayboy and her husband Elihu own Chief's Creole Cafe in the Deuces Live District of St Pete.

Chief's Creole Cafe dessert table.

Some of the decor at Chief's was original to the building.

Carolyn Brayboy waves to a neighbor outside of Chief's Creole Cafe.

Carolyn Brayboy points to a picture of the Sydney Harden Grocery that is now Chief's Creole Cafe.

When Sherry Howard, director of the Edible Peace Patch Project, asked a young student where do carrots come from and he said, “Walmart,” she knew she had some work to do.  

That conversation was also the inspiration for the Edible Peace Patch Project’s Golden Carrot Award, which honors an outstanding local community member each year.

“Having a golden carrot award seemed like a fun play on words and now it’s become our signature symbol for the Edible Peace Patch Project,” says Howard. 

First launched in 2009, the Edible Peace Patch Project is a nonprofit organization that supports the development of educational gardens at Title 1 schools in South Pinellas County. 

The program was featured in a July 2016, 83 Degrees Media story

“Building gardens, feeding bodies, is the tag line featured on the Edible Peace Patch Project website. The organization’s mission is to “create sustainable food systems to grow community in South St. Petersburg, a part of the city often termed a “food desert” because of the challenge of finding easily accessible and affordable fresh produce.

Students, teachers and volunteers provide the physical labor for growing vegetables. But there is also an education component with a formal curriculum that teaches math and science through hands-on learning activities.

There are currently eight school gardens, with Lealman Elementary and Gulfport Elementary Schools the most recent, says Howard. They came on board in March. 

Conversation is also underway with North Shore Elementary School about starting a garden there in the fall.

Great community support for the gardens

Two years ago, when Howard joined the program as director, she wanted to thank community members for their encouragement in helping nurture the garden project and she wanted to raise the organization’s visibility in the community.

That led to the Cultivating Community Golden Carrot Award, a combination major fundraising gala for the garden project and a way to recognize individuals who were not only supportive of the gardens’ mission, but who were also making a major difference in the South St. Petersburg community, where the majority of school gardens are located.

Last year, Watson Haynes, CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League was honored. This year, Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, owners of Chief’s Creole Café, were presented the award on May 5 during the Edible Peace Patch Gala at the Duncan McClellan Glass Gallery.

Meet the Brayboys

The Brayboys have deep roots in the South St. Petersburg community. Carolyn graduated from Gibbs High School, went on to earn an MBA from Florida State University and then had a 37-year career with IBM. She retired from the corporate world four years ago. 

Elihu attended Bishop Berry, now St. Petersburg Catholic High School, and graduated from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. He spent several years in New Orleans, where he lived at one time with his grandparents, and then came back to St. Petersburg in the 1970s to work in a variety of businesses. In the late 1980s, he was the first African-American hired as a stockbroker for the Dean Witter office in Clearwater, and later opened his own school for students with learning disabilities.

Over the years, the Brayboys also began buying and rehabbing rental homes in Orlando and St. Petersburg, an insurance policy for retirement, says Mr. Brayboy.

In 2012, they acquired their first commercial properties, a collection of buildings that included the former George Washington Tavern, and Sidney Harden grocery store and butcher shop, both one-time landmarks at the corner of 22nd Street and 9th Avenue South in the city’s Midtown community.

“I remember looking  down 22nd Street South and instead of seeing the thriving business and cultural center of the African-American community that I remembered from my youth, there was a boarded-up, depressing scene in front of me,” says Mr. Brayboy. “I said to my wife, 'Everyone says someone ought to do something about it. Maybe we should be the ones to try and help bring it back'.”

Opening Chief’s Creole Café

The first building they renovated is now Gallerie 909 www.gallerie909.com/, an art gallery owned by Carla Bristol that features African and Caribbean art. The following year, in the building that once housed Harden’s grocery store, they opened Chief’s Creole Café.

It was quite a project, Mrs. Brayboy recalls. “The building was boarded up  and the roof was caved in. It still had old wooden store shelves and a huge meat locker in the center of the room. Two red aprons hung on the back wall.”

A restaurant was not the Brayboys first plan for the building. They had intended to spur economic development in the neighborhood with a series of small offices for African-American entrepreneurs. But they could never quite get the project off the ground and it didn’t have local support. One sleepless night, Mrs. Brayboy woke up her husband, fretting about what they would do with “all the empty buildings.” He suggested a restaurant.

Mrs. Brayboy was in charge of the remodel, working over an 18-month period of time to salvage what she could, like the original tin ceiling and the fireplace in the café’s dining room.  

Chief’s Creole Café is named after Mr. Brayboy’s mother -- “ Chief” Mary Brayboy Jones, a Louisiana native who learned to cook New Orleans-style fare like shrimp and grits; jambalaya, gumbo and po boys from her mother.

“My mother was a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital and Bayfront Medical Center, and also an outstanding cook who enjoyed feeding everyone,” says Mr. Brayboy. “She had a little catering business on the side and cooked for many of the big name musicians – Earth, Wind & Fire; the O’Jays, the Commodores. I would load up the food and bring it to where they were playing in Florida.”

Looking ahead

The Brayboys are already lining up their next redevelopment project on 22nd Street South -- a remodel of the historic 1925 Merriwether building that they hope to turn into long-term residential housing for women ex-offenders. They’re also interested in creating a sustainable hydroponic garden on the top of the building to accomplish two goals: fresh vegetables for their restaurant and other restaurants in the city, and helping the women living in the building develop a new skill set.

“We’re about rebuilding, renewing and restoring, especially the culture that was here on 22nd Street South for so many decades,” says Mr. Brayboy. “We hope that we can contribute to a renaissance of this part of town.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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