Authentic Caribbean comfort food
“I’m from Trinidad and Tobago, and back home a lot of people cook their own food,” said chef and owner of West Indies Soul Food Sharon Richards-Noel, who came to the U.S. when she was just 18. “To eat out in Trinidad, it’s like Christmas. When you eat out, you eat good food.”
Although the St. Paul brick-and-mortar restaurant reopened in its new location just last September, 62-year-old Chef Sharon, as she is better known, has been cooking for over 35 years.
“We have always been a catering service,” she said, explaining how she got her start in the Twin Cities. She currently employs 15 people in her West Indies Soul Food business, but that number drops to between five and seven employees in the wintertime.
“We cater for schools, corporations and graduations,” she added, in addition to operating a food truck at events throughout the metro area and a booth at the Minnesota State Fair for 18 years. “We do a little bit of everything,” she said, “and we also have three specialty lines of sauces.”
MSR: What made you want to come to the United States?
Chef Sharon: My sister came to the United States first. She was one of the first African Americans at St. Kate’s [Saint Catherine University in St. Paul]. When I was at home, and I looked at the TV, I saw this beautiful snow and people having a good time in it. I’m like, I want to experience that. I was trying to go to school to be a dietitian. So, I talked to my sister, and she said they had a chef’s program.
I came over here so that I could enroll in the chef’s program at St. Kate’s, but to also experience the snow. Once I got here and I experienced the snow, I tried to go back home after four months. Just looking at it on TV it looks beautiful. Looking at people doing stuff in the winter, it looks beautiful. But living in it is totally different.
MSR: What inspired you to launch your business?
CS: When I came here and I tasted the food here I was like, I’ve got to do something a little bit different. I said I was going to do some healthy, authentic Caribbean food. A lot of the Caribbean restaurants here are not authentic.
MSR: What is it about cooking that made you interested in exploring it as a business?
CS: I grew up with some ladies who cook—my mom and her sisters. I grew up just seeing her and her sisters in the kitchen cooking. My mom had a Seven-11 [convenience store] and my dad was a butcher in the market. My mom was an entrepreneur, and my dad was an entrepreneur. I never looked at it as him being an entrepreneur. I just looked at it as him having a job.
I just love cooking. It brings me peace of mind. I’m a praying person. I bless my food every day before I come to the kitchen, so that people can be healthy and that it would nourish them.
MSR: What would you consider your most popular items on the menu?
CS: Well, it’s a mix. A lot of people like the Jamaican patties, which are turnovers with meat on the inside. Then another group of people like the Jamaican jerk chicken, which we do a little differently. I’m also seeing the oxtails kicking butt.
MSR: What’s been your biggest challenge in running a business?
CS: My biggest challenge in running my business is getting financial help. Because I’m always cooking, I’m always in the kitchen. I love cooking. I love creating recipes. I’m not the type of person that’s out there networking, and I can’t receive the grants that other people are receiving.
MSR: What’s the most rewarding part of owning your business?
CS: Generational wealth. To me, generational wealth is wealth for the community. I’m creating generational wealth by offering jobs to people in the community. I’m establishing and creating generational wealth when I teach young people some culinary skills, how to work, and some life skills. It’s not just about my family, it’s about just the community.
MSR: How does your business impact the community?
CS: We give back a lot. One of the schools that we catered for before Covid, 90 percent of the kids were homeless. The food that I provided for them was home-cooked food. I wasn’t paid for what the food would cost me. The school was trying to help the young people, so my gift was cooking a good meal and using my money to keep it going.
We were at HSRA [ High School for Recording Arts] for four years. During Covid, we tried to do curbside there. To the founder of the school, David T. Ellis, I’d like to just say a really, really big thanks to him. He didn’t know how much he helped me.
MSR: What’s the vision for the future of your business?
CS: My two-year goal is to pay back my loans that I took to build this. It took $450,000 to just create this kitchen right here, which is a catering kitchen. I love cooking for schools. I would like to get two school contracts. I’d also like to reach the point where I can offer prepped meals, so that when people pass by after school, they can grab a meal to take home. Sometimes, your mom or dad isn’t home, so you don’t have dinner ready.
MSR: What does success look like for you?
CS: Success for me is that I get to pay back the money that I owe. I have a lien on my house and on my truck. I want to get rid of that. If something happened today, I want my house to be there for my kids or my grandkids. I’d also like to be able to employ more people, have someone to manage big corporate accounts and to have a banquet manager.
MSR: What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
CS: Don’t give up. Sometimes it’s hard. Stick with it. Don’t just say, I want to be an entrepreneur and make money. You’ve got to love it. Once you have that love for it, that desire will make you push yourself more, just to make it work.
West Indies Soul Food is located at 839 University Ave W Suite 103, St Paul, MN. For more information go to the restaurant website, or call (651) 726-4120.
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