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West Indies Soul Food owner reaffirms commitment to St. Paul youth, God — and good chicken

After years on the road, West Indies Soul Food is back in Saint Paul for good.

The popular Caribbean restaurant-turned-food-truck-turned-restaurant-again celebrated its grand opening on Nov. 19 in a new home on University Avenue and Victoria Street. It’s less than four blocks from where Sharon Richards-Noel opened the first brick-and-mortar iteration of the restaurant more than two decades ago.

“I always wanted to come back to University,” she said. “I’m a family-oriented person, so I love the fellowship. I love the family relationships, and Saint Paul has that. University Avenue has that. I missed that.”

The kitchen — currently only offering takeout or curbside pickup — is open from noon to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

On opening day, the jerk chicken was tender, comforting and not spicy, and the chicken curry stew had a deliberate, restrained boldness.

Close-up photo of blackened chicken over rice and beans, with other stews in the background.
Jerk chicken, chicken curry and stewed cabbage at West Indies Soul Food. (Jared Kaufman / Pioneer Press)

Customers were waiting 20 minutes for her State Fair-famous Jamaican patties. Entrees are served with rice and red beans plus a choice of stewed cabbage, collards, or caramelly plantains. The homemade ginger beer (non-alcoholic nor carbonated) was stunningly gingery, spicy and warming on a blustery cold day, despite being served over ice. And Richards-Noel’s sweet potato pie was, as everyone should know by this point, life-changing.

And the staff, she said, is young. Like owners of other new cafes in town, Richards-Noel wants to use West Indies Soul Food to help youth find success; to help build structure and support in their lives in the way the community did for her, decades ago.

“I don’t just want to be a place where people come in and support financially,” she said, “but I’d like to be a place where I give back to the community. I’d like to change the community. For us to get back to those family-oriented relationships.”

Richards-Noel, who grew up in Trinidad, moved to the Twin Cities when she was 18. Organizations like Dress for Success, she said, were influential in helping her be economically independent, but the relationships she built with neighbors were truly transformative. A woman Richards-Noel met at church became her “second mom,” picking up the young immigrant from work and dropping off groceries when she needed, no questions asked.

“That did something to my heart,” Richards-Noel said. “She took me to the park with my son — and showed me how to be a mom. … And [she’s] a white woman. I’m a Black woman. We saw each other as human beings, and she showed me genuine love.”

In the mid-1990s, she launched West Indies Soul Food as a catering company, and in 2000, she opened its first physical location on University Avenue and Dale Street. She ran the restaurant with her oldest son, and opened stands at the Minnesota State Fair and Midtown Global Market, too. After her son died in a car accident, she closed the restaurant and Global Market stand and morphed the business into a food truck. West Indies Soul Food is still a staple of the State Fair’s International Bazaar, and Richards-Noel’s cooking pops up at catered events around the cities.

Before the pandemic, she was also cooking lunches for students at High School for Recording Arts. Even still, she said, she’ll run into former students at the store who call her “Auntie Sharon” or “grandma.” These young people are struggling, she said, because adults have lost touch with them.

“A lot of people don’t build relationships [with youth] and just want to chastise, and tell you what to do and tell you what you’re doing wrong,” she said. “And they don’t know anything about you. They don’t know your history. They don’t know your background. They don’t know where you come from — and they judge. That’s not my place to judge. My place is, if I help you, then you can help somebody else, help somebody else, help somebody else. And I think we got away from that, as adults.”

When Richards-Noel first came across the space that would ultimately become her new kitchen, she was daunted. Building out the space came with a price tag of nearly $500,000. But thanks to Saint Paul’s Neighborhood Sales Tax Revitalization program, or STAR, the City Council subsidized about 40 percent of the cost through a combination of grants and low-interest loans.

Sharon Richards-Noel of West Indies Soul Food holds her Jamaican MNi Me's homemade beef patties (left) and Jerk Chicken Wings, at a media tasting day event at Allianz Field in St. Paul
Sharon Richards-Noel of West Indies Soul Food holds her Jamaican MNi Me’s homemade beef patties (left) and Jerk Chicken Wings, at a media tasting day event at Allianz Field in St. Paul, April 10, 2019. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

“Fast-forward three years — now, I’m in the same space that I couldn’t afford,” she said. “I believe that God wanted me to be here. That was my kitchen, and he made a way so I can get the funding.”

Faith is a guiding force for Richards-Noel. The new West Indies Soul Food space is small and, on its opening day, was decorated very simply with certificates, newspaper clippings from the business’ early days, and spiritual decals. “With God, all things are possible,” says one wall. “Thankful, grateful and truly blessed,” says another, surrounded by butterflies.

“This is who I am,” Richards-Noel said. “I need to start being who I am. Because other people are different [doesn’t] mean I have to be like them; I’m going to be who I am. And who is Sharon? Sharon is a giving, loving, caring person. I love the lord. The lord is first in my life. When Jesus came on this earth, he showed love, and we need to show love to each other.”

West Indies Soul Food: takeout from 12–7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 839 W. University Ave.; 651-726-4120; westindiessoul.com

West Indies Soul Food owner reaffirms commitment to St. Paul youth, God — and good chicken

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