Restaurant owner aspires to heal the community
“I pray and bless my food before I start cooking because I want to heal somebody, help somebody, so I cook for your soul,” said Sharon Richards-Noel, the proud owner of West Indies Soul Food.
Richards-Noel is originally from Trinidad, and she came to Minnesota in the late ’80s. She established West Indies Soul Food in April of 1993.
Since then, customers have come to expect flavorful Caribbean food. “Oxtail and jerk chicken are what people love,” Richards-Noel said.
The restaurant will be offering more healthy options in the future to please a broader range of customers. “I’m going to do some lentil peas that are going to be vegan, rice and peas,” Richards-Noel said. “If someone comes who is vegan or vegetarian, I want to have something for them.”
Richards-Noel shared the store’s backstory. “Four of us decided to start West Indies Soul Food—my ex-husband and another couple,” she said. “I was basically tired of going out there purchasing food. The food wasn’t good and I’m paying a lot of money.”
She added, “I was more concerned about the flavor of the food, the amount of food I’m getting for my money, the quality of the food—I was concerned about that.”
Her dissatisfaction motivated her to “start something different,” by offering Caribbean cuisine. “I believe in healthy eating—you can eat good food and still be healthy,” she said.
WISF received start-up money in the beginning. Richards-Noel explained, “My first $5,000 was from the Neighborhood Development Center [NDC]. She utilized the capital to launch West Indies Soul Food.
“My business started in my church [Minneapolis Central Church of Christ]. I spoke to the preacher, and I told him that I wanted to start my business; he had the kitchen updated—had it approved by the health department,” Richards-Noel said.
The upgrades enabled her to start catering. “So, I started doing a lot of outdoor shows—putting up tent,” Richards-Noel said, “and then it became a little bit too much for us because we had to go up and down stairs.”
She chose to relocate her business. “I decided to talk to Neighborhood Development Center [NDC] again and then I opened a restaurant on Dale and University,” Richards-Noel said. That location put her business on the map.
After the restaurant closed, she eventually opened at the Midtown Global Market [MGM]. “After St. Paul, my son passed away from a car accident and I moved to Minneapolis,” Richards-Noel said.
Although MGM provided an opportunity, she chose not to stay. Richards-Noel explained that she “didn’t last too long at Midtown,” due to expenses. “It’s just that the building, the facility cost so much and small businesses have to pay so much money in rent and parking to stay in business, so a lot of the original owners had to leave,” she said.
Despite challenges, Richards-Noel persevered. She said, “I decided to sell my business and get a food truck. It’s therapeutic for me to cook, create recipes, feed people.” The new business model enabled her to expand her territory and reach more customers throughout the Twin Cities.
She also has a booth at the Minnesota State Fair. “My son passed on Mother’s Day,” Richards-Noel shared. That was her first year at the State Fair. “I’ve been at the State Fair for 17 years,” she said.
“When I was in the food building, it was a little bit different; I’ve always been blessed with enough people to come around me,” Richards-Noel said. She added, “People love us at the Fair.” The food is well-received, and the support is phenomenal, she said.
In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Richards-Noel to become creative with the way she conducts business. Right now, “We’re building our own kitchen out of the BROWNstone building on University—a catering kitchen and then we’ll have curbside. In August, gonna start a program for youth,” who’ll be taught about “emotional intelligence and life skills.” They’ll have an opportunity to learn about culinary arts too, she said.
She offered advice for youth and upcoming entrepreneurs: “Be ready to take advice. I’m noticing a lot of young people think they know everything. Yes, you can be an entrepreneur, but some of us been out here and we already went through a lot of trials and tribulations, and we could save you that heartache by you listening.”
West Indies Soul Food is currently raising funds to bring the restaurant to the Midway area. For more information, visit www.westindiessoul.com or call 651-726-4120.
Ashley Lauren is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder.