Hyde Park Is Ready for Its Comeback 

The north-city neighborhood is seeing new energy and new leadership. Could its moment finally be here?

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Telie Woods and Zahra Spencer opened their restaurant, Jerk Soul, in a neighborhood they saw as having everything needed for success. - TOM HELLAUER
  • TOM HELLAUER
  • Telie Woods and Zahra Spencer opened their restaurant, Jerk Soul, in a neighborhood they saw as having everything needed for success.
The Business Owners: Telie Woods and Zahra Spencer

Telie Woods, 42, and Zahra Spencer, 33, freely admit they wouldn’t be in Hyde Park if not for bad weather. As the couple first told the RFT’s Cheryl Baehr a few months ago, they had been planning to open a restaurant in St. Thomas, with Woods relocating from Chicago to be with his long-distance sweetheart in the Virgin Islands.

Just one week after Woods arrived, Irma struck, devastating the island. Spencer stayed with her family in St. Thomas, but Woods evacuated by boat to Puerto Rico.

And then came Hurricane Maria. A St. Louis friend of Woods’ helped him secure a ticket on one of the last flights out of San Juan before the hurricane hit. And after that, he ended up in St. Louis, too.

As Baehr wrote, “The pair still wanted to open a restaurant, but now that the islands were devastated, they knew they could not do it in St. Thomas. Something told [Woods] to begin searching St. Louis for a space, and within three days, he’d found a completely renovated restaurant waiting for its first tenant in the middle of the Hyde Park neighborhood. Immediately, he knew it was the right fit.” Not long after, Spencer joined him, and they opened Jerk Soul.

Now clicking as a takeout-only operation, Jerk Soul runs six days a week, the pair taking off for the sabbath on Saturday. “That’s probably the most busy day for a lot of restaurants,” Woods says. “But we’re not open because of our faith. Yes. Saturday is the original sabbath, a high holy day. We actually don’t do any work on that day, whatsoever.”

That leaves the other six days, though. And on those they work hella hard.

On a recent Friday afternoon, between the lunch and dinner rushes, a small crop of folks gather in Jerk Soul’s small, shallow lobby. In the seriously expansive kitchen, Spencer works the ovens while Woods dodges a small rain shower at his uncovered grill alongside the building, cooking up some of the 120 pounds of chicken the pair serve on an average day.

Jerk Soul is drawing attention outside the neighborhood's boundaries. - CHERYL BAEHR
  • CHERYL BAEHR
  • Jerk Soul is drawing attention outside the neighborhood's boundaries.

Located about a half block from the park version of Hyde Park, Jerk Soul is now part of an emerging restaurant zone. Just down the block is the Cornerstone Cafe. It was founded in 2003 by Denise and Dan Ulmer, who on a recent day are working alongside three of their six kids as grandchildren bounce through the candy-colored restaurant. The building was once (amazingly) known as Beaver’s Pizza, among other concepts, before the Ulmers began their successful run. Their clientele comes largely from workers at nearby businesses, who stop by for lunch, served atop formica tables; delivery is also available.

Across the street from them is the River Lillie, which offers a variety of fare in a freshly rehabbed, sit-down space. Highlighting a breakfast-and-lunch menu, with an emphasis on “chicken, fish and burgers,” the room is also home to select nights of live entertainment. Owner Maggie Hourd-Bryant told the RFT she’d come to St. Louis to pursue her PhD at Wash U — and, after originally settling in Clayton, found a home in the Fairgrounds neighborhood. As soon as she saw the “for lease” sign on the River Lillie’s newly renovated building, she knew she wanted to open a restaurant there.

“If we can rebuild it, we can reclaim its former glory,” she said in August. “It’s not about new developments but about accessing what is already available here — the buildings and the people in the community.”

The more the merrier, says Woods, figuring that attention on one restaurant can only help the next.

“Obviously, we’re a new business, so we want to ask where people have heard of us,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘Hey, we’ve seen you through social media.’ Fifty percent, though, are word of mouth. ‘My co-worker recommended me to you guys,’ or, ‘It was lunchtime and I saw a plate, where’d you get that from?’ ‘Jerk Soul on Salisbury.’ That’s combined with the actual neighborhood.

“The buzz about us here has been pretty amazing. People are like, ‘Hey, there’s this new place in Hyde Park. The prices are good and the food is nourishing.’ It’s an underserved area and they were looking for something like this. Let’s be honest: It’s a food desert. For a lot of people around here, there haven’t been a lot of fresh food items. They want to eat more healthy and are tired of eating pizza out of a gas station. I think we’re partly providing a solution to a local problem.”

For years, the neighborhood’s previous alderman would tout the street as having the potential to be the next Beale Street, or, as audaciously, the next Bourbon. Right now, a marginally more robust Salisbury Street would be plenty for many residents. Jerk Soul hopes to be part of that, providing a place that’s actually making it, as opposed to a drawing on paper.

“Yeah, that’s a fact,” says Woods. “I don’t feel any pressure, as far as that goes. I feel some responsibility, though. I feel that we’re responsible to not just be successful for six months, but for the next six years. That’s what we’re looking at, the long term. We’re excited at the coming updates to the area, to be kind of a flagship business and help lead the charge.”

As for Spencer, she hopes the carryout eatery might lead to a second shop.

“We’re probably wanting to have a sit-down,” she says. “We want the full experience. Good food served in a good atmosphere. Maybe create some Caribbean vegan food, since we don’t want to disappoint our meatless friends.”

Mind you, there are vegetarian options at Jerk Soul now, though it’s the chicken that’s proven key to drawing new customers. Another, bigger key is getting people into the idea that Hyde Park is not all that far from where they work or commute.

Asked for her pitch to customers who are unaware of Hyde Park or disinclined to visit north city, Spencer offers an interesting twist.

“I would tell them that Hyde Park is a community of smiles and diversity,” she says. “There’s a community within a community here. There’s so much opportunity here, with a lot of buildings that people are starting to buy and renovate. It’d be a missed opportunity to not venture into this area. They’re doing themselves a disservice in not coming down here.”

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