ST. PETERSBURG — A new face smiles on a window on 22nd Street.
It’s the face of Elma Barnes. She is also the face of Elma’s Cafe, one of the newest, small businesses that have arrived on the Deuces in recent months.
Elma was the sister of the legendary Joe Yates, who owned a barbershop in the same building. The barbershop, which opened in 1955, was part of the cornerstone businesses on 22nd Street during the area’s peak years.
“She wanted to hold on to it,” said Pastor Joseph Myrick, who served Mount Ebal Primitive Baptist Church for 20 years. The restaurant, he said, “helps continue the Yates family legacy in Midtown.”
The cafe is located on 22nd Street South next to Mount Ebal Primitive Baptist Church. Her son Dwayne manages the store.
Yates served his community for more than a half century. He and his wife Euolia managed a Jordan Park nursery and kindergarten center from 1961 to 1976.
“He was always community minded,” said Carolyn Brayboy, who owns Chief’s Creole Café with her husband Elihu.“The area always counted on him for support and haircuts.”
The Barnes family grew up in Orlando, and regularly visited Midtown for family gatherings. Dwayne remembers working at his uncle’s barbershop and visiting the once popular city landmarks such as the Piccadilly cafeteria and the iconic inverted pier.
Yates passed away in 2001 at 76; subsequently the barbershop closed after 45 years. His brother Raleigh inherited the building as the new landlord. When he passed away in 2011, Elma came to Midtown along with Dwayne in 2014. Seeing the deserted room gave Elma the inspiration to open a restaurant.
“Cook” was Elma’s nickname, Barnes said. Elma’s favorite recipes include fried chicken and okra.
She and Dwayne started renovating the building, but Elma died last year before the cafe’s completion. She was 96.
“She was so excited about cooking for the community,” Barnes said.
The cafe is open on weekdays from 7-4 p.m. Barnes busiest hours are in the morning when customers call in for fast pickups before work.
“There are rarely sit-ins,” Barnes said.
Though food traffic has been slow for the summer, Barnes hopes it picks up once students return to St. Petersburg College Midtown, which is across the street. Many students stop in for lunch and conversation with him.
Annie Tyrell, owner of Annie’s Beauty Shop, frequently gets her breakfast meal of egg croissant sandwich with bacon, ham and mayo.
“And I always have it hot and ready,” Tyrell, 60, said after her call-in.
Coming back to the Deuces after a long interval was something of a shock, Barnes said. The once prosperous area lost its vibrancy when construction of Interstate 275 closed many businesses and uprooted families.
Barnes believes that Midtown has lost the lure he once saw.
“What I saw long ago has totally died.” he said.
But he was heartened that entrepreneurs such as the Brayboys have led efforts to revitalize the street with new businesses, events and repairs.
Barnes sponsors a new inner-city youth baseball team named the Elma’s Cafe Tigers. He made the agreement with youth baseball coach Thomas English, who painted the cafe’s murals. He also painted the building green for revitalization.
“This new green is an uplift from that ugly white green that was fading with fungus,” English, 59, said.
Barnes recently talked with St. Petersburg Historic Preservationist Laura Duvekot to certify the building as a historical designation. The process, Duvekot said, would include extensive research on architecture and association with famous people and events to match the city’s criteria.