HOOVER, Ala. (AP) — Tucked away in a retail center off Hoover’s busy John Hawkins Parkway, Jake’s Soul Food Café is practically hidden in plain sight.

Pardon us that it has taken us this long to discover it.

“We’ve been here almost five years,” Sherrell Moore, the general manager at Jake’s, says. “(People) have ridden past us for years and never knew that we were here. And once they find out, they always become return customers.”

From Jamaican jerk chicken and stewed oxtails to pork chops and fried catfish, there are lots of reasons to keep coming back to this family-owned dining gem that is as beloved for its Caribbean dishes as it is its soul food.

“Some people will get some Southern (food) and Caribbean on the same plate,” Moore says. “The way our menu is set up, you can get a mixture of both.”

Like, say, curry chicken with mac and cheese and collard greens on one plate. And pork chops with plantains and Caribbean rice and a Jamaican beef patty on another.

The stewed oxtails, which are marinated for 24 hours, have become the most popular item on the menu.

“Our menu is one that, for some people coming in, there are some foods they’ve never had before,” Moore says. “A lot of people haven’t had Caribbean-style oxtails. The seasonings are different.

“So, I like to (say), ‘Let’s try it; let’s see if you like it,’” he adds. “I definitely have had people come in and they’ve tried it for the first time, and (now) that’s what they order every time they come in.”

A craving for Caribbean food

The story of Jake’s Soul Food Café goes back to around 2014, when newlyweds Dawn Simmons and her husband, Sean Simmons – who had moved to Birmingham from New York and North Carolina, respectively – were driving around town looking for a place to satisfy their craving for Caribbean food.

“We had found a couple of places,” Dawn Simmons recalls, “but nobody had that Caribbean flair that we were looking for -- that taste that we were looking for.”

So, Sean Simmons, who is in the burial insurance business, suggested to his wife that they start a restaurant of their own.

“He was like, ‘Let’s open up a restaurant,’” Dawn Simmons says. “And I was like, ‘A restaurant? I don’t know how to run a restaurant. I’ve never owned a business.’

“He kind of wore me down,” she adds, “so we decided to go ahead and do it.”

They found a location off U.S. 31 in Pelham, where the original Jake’s Café opened about six years ago. They named it after Sean’s father, Jake Simmons.

“My daughter Amaya is the one who thought about calling it Jake’s after him,” Dawn Simmons says. “So, we just ran with it, and it just stuck.”

The Simmonses reached out to Dawn’s father, Bayne Walter, who lives in Trinidad, for the Caribbean recipes, and they recruited Sean’s sister Teresa McLaughlin, who had worked for 14 years at a Chick-fil-A franchise in Raleigh, N.C., to be their executive chef.

“We put our heads together, and I got some recipes from my dad since he’s from the Caribbean,” Dawn Simmons says. “I got the recipes, and we taught Teresa how to cook and prepare (them), and it’s been going ever since then.”

McLaughlin – better known around the restaurant as “Ree Ree” -- was already well-schooled in cooking fried chicken and collard greens, but the Caribbean recipes were foreign to her.

Cooking, though, is cooking, she says.

“All you have to do is follow a recipe and taste it and add a dab here and a dab there,” she says. “And that’s all I did.”

News of the new Caribbean/soul food restaurant quickly got around on social media and through word of mouth.

“My son (Johannes) went around passing out fliers, we were dropping off menus at different businesses, and since it was new in Pelham, everyone wanted to come see what it was about,” Dawn Simmons says. “That’s how we really got our name out there, just hitting the pavement.”

A new home in Hoover

A year or so later, though, they realized they needed to be closer to Birmingham, so Jake’s moved into its current location at 3075 John Hawkins Parkway, near the intersection of U.S. 31 and Alabama 150.

“The move here was for a better location,” Moore, the general manager, says. “We noticed it was hard to get individuals, say, from Birmingham to come all the way to Pelham.

“So, we found this location, and with it being right next to the (Riverchase) Galleria, we thought it would be a good move,” he adds. “The only thing we were worried about, if you don’t really know where we are, you’ll drive right past it. It kind of sits down the hill. But it actually has worked out for us, being right here.”

Most of their customers, Moore says, have discovered Jake’s through the recommendation of a trusted friend.

“Our clientele, because of where we are in Hoover, we get a mixture of everyone,” Moore says. “For the most part, it’s really just been word of mouth, and just good reviews from people who have had good experiences when they come in here.”

The actor Ving Rhames, best known for his roles in “Pulp Fiction” and the “Mission: Impossible” series, dropped by about a year ago to get some Jamaican beef patties, and Charles Barkley, the former Auburn and NBA basketball star, is a semi-regular, Moore says.

“He always comes in and sits at the end of the bar, and you probably wouldn’t even know he was there if you didn’t know him,” Moore says. “But he comes in quite often. He normally gets the oxtails.”

Jake’s has also become a favorite dining destination for visiting comedians who come to town to perform at the nearby StarDome Comedy Club, Moore says.

“Everybody gets treated the same when they come through the door,” he says. “We get them their food and make sure they’re happy, and the majority of the time, they are.”

A family affair

From the start, Jake’s Soul Food Café has been a family affair.

Sean and Dawn Simmons co-own the restaurant with McLaughlin, Sean’s sister. And Moore, the general manager, is McLaughlin’s son. Her other son, Logan Greene, was the previous GM.

“Once my husband and I showed Teresa the recipes, we put her in charge of the kitchen because she has a restaurant background,” Dawn Simmons says. “She’s just been holding it down for us. She and Sherrell really have been such an important part of this business.”

Moore has done – and still does – a little of everything at the restaurant.

“When I started out, I was literally just washing dishes and taking out the trash,” he says. “From there, I was like, if I’m there, I might as well learn everything about all the different aspects of the restaurant.

“So, from there, I learned everything in the kitchen, everything as far as waiting tables and actually running the restaurant. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Working alongside his mother is a blessing, Moore adds.

“Me and my mom are very close, so to work with her is just like being around her every day,” he says. “We joke a lot, but we also know that once we get here, it is about business. You hardly ever hear me call her ‘Mom.’ It’s ‘Ree Ree’ while we’re here at work, and she’s ‘Mom’ once we get outside of work.

“But it’s definitely fun,” he adds. “I love working with my mom. I get to be with my mom every day.”

Other than McLaughlin, most of the kitchen staff has never worked in a restaurant before coming to Jake’s, Moore says.

“We don’t hire chefs, so everyone who comes in, we teach them exactly how to cook,” he says. “So, having people who’ve never worked in a kitchen grow to where now they can cook all of these different items, and seeing them grow as individuals (is rewarding).

Adjusting to the new normal

As have restaurants all over Alabama, Jake’s Soul Food Café has had to rethink its business model because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The dining room has been closed since mid-March, but Jake’s, which was already doing a healthy to-go business with its Jake’s Express takeout menu, has successfully pivoted to curbside and delivery service.

“We used to have it where people could walk in the building, step up to the counter and place their orders,” Moore says of their Jake’s Express takeout business. “Now, no one can come in the building. We’ve had to overcome a lot of different things.

“Instead of having one or two calls come in, we have 20 calls come in at one time because everybody pulls up at the same time,” he adds. “Now we are implementing more things to handle that, moving over to online ordering, looking at ways to actually take the orders at the car.

“This has been a completely different business model, and we’re still improving things to make it more efficient so that the customers can get their food in a timely matter.”

Although many restaurants around the state have re-opened to limited seating capacity since Gov. Kay Ivey eased restrictions on in-person dining in early May, Jake’s Soul Food Café is taking a cautious approach to reopening its dining room, Moore says.

“The owners really feel that it’s a little too soon to open everything back up,” he says. “We definitely want to make sure that, for those employees who work here and our customers, as well, it is safe for them to come out.”

Dawn Simmons, though, longs to greet all her regular customers again.

Even though she had never owned a restaurant before opening Jake’s six years ago, she is constantly reminded what a blessing it has been to her.

“It’s been an overwhelming experience for me,” she says. “The community just welcomed us with open arms. I couldn’t believe it.

“And I’m eternally grateful to Birmingham and Hoover and Pelham for their support -- especially being a young Black woman and having a Black-owned business in Alabama. That’s huge for me.”

For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, The Birmingham News.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.