Soul Survivors

The Coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a formidable obstacle for many restaurant owners in an industry that is notoriously unstable. Zahra and Telie of Jerk Soul may rank it among the top five. It is not easy to open a successful independent restaurant, even under normal circumstances. Spencer and Woods managed to keep Jerk Soul going through two hurricanes and a transcontinental relocation, as well as the learning curve for first-time restaurateurs. They also expanded their dining room in response to the pandemic.

Woods, who is from Chicago, met Spencer while he was looking for an apartment in the Virgin Islands. He wanted to move from Chicago to St. Thomas, where Spencer lived at the time. Spencer declared, “I am a Caribbean lady from the bottom of my heart.” Spencer was born in St. Croix. Her mother is Jamaican, and her father is Antiguan.

Spencer and Woods both worked in marketing, but they had always dreamed of owning a restaurant. Woods stated that the match was perfect. “When we first met, we talked about our dreams, desires, goals, and everything. This was a common goal. We decided to do that in the Virgin Islands.”

They wanted to attract tourists by offering a beachy food menu and ice cream while also enjoying life on the island. They looked for the ideal location and found one near where cruise ships docked in St. Thomas. They were just about to sign a lease for the restaurant when Irma struck late in the summer of 2017.

Irma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane recorded. It was also the first Category 5 to hit the Virgin Islands. It didn’t stop there. The damage was devastating. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria, the second Category 5 hurricane to ever hit the islands, struck.

Spencer’s apartment was the place where they weathered their first storm. After Irma, the two barely had time to catch their breath when they learned that Maria was coming. Woods decided to attempt to get back to the mainland. He left Chicago and everything he knew to start a new life on a now-devastated island. He still lived out of suitcases, and the restaurant was not happening in St. Thomas. Not right now. He wanted to leave before it was too much.

Jerk Soul

Irma decimated the airport. As the storm approached, cruise ships began to transport people away from the islands. Woods discovered another way. He said, “I got on a small vessel with 25 other people who were trying to reach Puerto Rico.” “I think you’ve seen the damage that Hurricane Maria has done to Puerto Rico. I was there when the storm began. The airports were closing down. “My friend from St. Louis got me on the last flight – that’s why I ended up in St. Louis.”

Spencer stayed. She said, “It was not even a consideration because my family was still in the Virgin Islands.” She knew she would not be able to contact her family after leaving because the infrastructure had already been damaged. I didn’t take the risk.

The weather had become too hazardous by the time Woods’ boat was about to leave. She was on her own. Spencer was stuck on her own. Hurricanes are common in the Caribbean, but she had never experienced anything like this. The only thing that she could compare the situation to was the Category 4 hurricane which decimated Spencer’s hometown when she was 6 years old.

She said, “I lived at the top of a mountain and I could see that every house going towards the ocean was without a roof.” She was upstairs at the time when Hugo tore off their roof. Spencer said, “My sister was in my mother’s arms as a newborn.” Her mother placed a mattress on top of the bathtub to shield them. Her family was forced to rush downstairs and fight through the debris when the calm eye of the storm appeared. She spent most of the second half of the storm on a countertop because the lower level began to flood.

She said, “It’s what makes you a survivor.” “The same happened with Maria and Irma. People didn’t have any electricity or any of the luxuries that you take for granted.

Spencer was safe at home as Maria ravaged St. Thomas. She said, “I am so glad I didn’t leave.” She had seen a larger apartment before Woods arrived, but it had vanished in the storms like a magical trick. She heard about people who stayed in their cars during the storm because they were afraid of flooding, people who had lost loved ones, and people who had been missing. When the wind was too strong, an acquaintance’s husband fell to his death while trying to secure something onto his roof. In the British Virgin Islands, a woman was missing, and her body was discovered with her baby. They had been swept by the sea. This one stuck with her. She said, “Only God’s grace can I or any of my family members say that.”

Her family is lucky. Her childhood home still stands, and her parents’ business is doing well. Spencer stated that despite the sad stories, there are many triumphant stories. In times like these, you can see the humanity in people. Strangers helped strangers. She feels blessed that she has made it relatively unscathed. She was able to say yes when Woods invited her to St. Louis.

What began as a random landing to escape Hurricane Maria became something permanent. Woods was eager to settle in a new location for his restaurant. In a period of such turmoil, conventional wisdom advises against making major decisions. How do you go from moving to the Caribbean to a second career with a new partner, to a traumatic loss, to committing to a restaurant in an unfamiliar city? Woods’ decision was not impulsive.

He decided to move and start anew in a different place. Even in the seemingly random city of St. Louis, he was returning to his goal of opening a restaurant as a way of regaining stability and a sense of home. He said, “Before storms hit, we were in the restaurant mode.” The fact that the storms destroyed his plans to start a restaurant on the beach did not mean he gave up. He said, “I thought, well, since I was here, that must mean it’s where the restaurant is.” Woods was unable to reach Spencer for a long time after he located the restaurant because the island’s cell service was still disrupted by the hurricane. However, he did eventually get her.

“The people that we were before this experience have long since died. We got new skin, hearts, bodies, everything. We just kept jumping over hurdles and hurdles. You know, this experience built grit, strength, and determination. I think about it often, and I don’t realize I have so much stamina. … “But through the storm we are here.” – ZAHRA Spencer

“He said, ‘You must come!’ and I asked, Where?’ “I’ve never been in St. Louis before!” She had previously visited the mainland, but mostly the coasts. She had only visited Chicago and never spent any time in the Midwest. It was a difficult decision.

Spencer stated, “I fasted and prayed for the answer. “I asked God to guide me whether I should go. I even went against my parents’ will. My parents thought I was crazy. What are you up to? I replied, “Well, I am doing what my spirit is telling me to do. I will do it.”… It was something I always wanted to do – open a brick and mortar. I made that leap of trust. I sold everything. “I whittled my life down to just two suitcases and bought a one-way flight to St. Louis.”

“I had always wanted to open a brick-and-mortar store. I made that leap of confidence. I sold everything. “I dwindled down my life to two suitcases and got on a one-way ticket to St. Louis.”

She landed a few weeks after Christmas 2017, boarded a plane at 90 degrees, and stepped out in the snow. She was not prepared for the cold. The cold was much worse than when she had visited the mainland as a tourist.


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