BY BRYANA PERKINS
NNB Student Reporter
ST. PETERSBURG – It’s been decades since the aroma of smoked barbecue wafted along the city’s historic 22nd Street S.
For years, Geech’s was the place to get barbecue, a popular spot that John “Geech” Black ran when 22nd Street – “the Deuces” – was the main street of the black community during the era of segregation.
But integration, urban renewal, the proliferation of drug trafficking and Interstate 275 – which in the 1970s effectively cut the neighborhood in two – spelled the end of most of the businesses and homes along the Deuces. Geech’s closed in the early 1980s.
Now, amid efforts to revive the street and surrounding neighborhood, a new barbecue restaurant has opened at 911 22nd St. S.
Deuces BBQ will feature the kind of fare that made Geech’s a popular fixture along the once-thriving street. But there is one difference: The men who own it are white.
They are Patrick “PT” Collins, 39, a local businessman who recently sold the Key West Shrimp Company in St. Pete Beach, and Kevin Egulf, 40, the head chef at Chief’s Creole Café, the restaurant next door to Deuces BBQ.
Both buildings are owned by entrepreneurs Eilhu and Carolyn Brayboy. The couple, who grew up in the neighborhood, say they have invested $800,000 to buy and restore four buildings there.
The return of barbecue is critical in their efforts to bring commerce and customers back to the Deuces, said Elihu Brayboy.
Even during segregation, white people patronized Geech’s, making it “the first integrated business” in the area, he said. “We’re talking about the remnants of history.”
The race of the owners is not important, said Carolyn Brayboy. “It’s really not about color; it’s about passion. One person can start a chain reaction” of positive developments.
The Brayboys hired Egulf in December to be head chef at their Creole restaurant and help build up business. So when they started interviewing people for the barbecue place, Egulf was a natural. He has a passion for cooking, said the Brayboys, and Collins has a history of entrepreneurship, including ownership of a corporate housing firm, a vacation rental company and a UPS store.
Both owners are mindful of local history and traditions.
“We hope to bring some good barbecue to downtown St. Petersburg and to the neighborhood,” said Collins. “We are really trying to reach out and embody the style of the neighborhood; that is why we chose the name Deuces. We really want to be part of the community.”
Collins said he handles the finances, marketing and other behind-the-scenes details. Egulf continues to work at the café in the evenings after he is done smoking and preparing the food at Deuces BBQ.
Entrees on the menu range from $7 to $10, and include “beer, briskets, chicken, ribs, sausage, and hot dogs,” Egulf said. “Our sides will be potato salad, baked beans, cole slaw and jalapeno cheddar cornbread.”
Diners can eat inside at the counter or in a patio inside. The restaurant is open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
When St. Petersburg College’s new Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Midtown Center opens this fall less than four blocks away, Deuces BBQ will be ready, Egulf said. Customers with a student ID will be able to buy a sandwich, chips and soda for $6.
Years ago, Geech’s was also popular with students. According to historian and former Tampa Bay Times reporter Jon Wilson, many students at the nearby 16th Street Junior High and Gibbs High School slipped away during lunchtime to get a bite to eat there.
Geech’s stayed open late to catch the crowds that flocked to concerts and parties at the Manhattan Casino and nearby dance halls, Wilson said.
Geech’s opened in the 1930s and had several locations along 22nd Street before Black sold the business in 1973, Wilson said. A new owner kept the Geech’s name until it closed in the early 1980s.
(Ten blocks to the south on 22nd Street, there was another barbecue restaurant. Joe Roberson opened Joe’s Bar-B-Que in 1963. It closed in the late 1990s. Connie Siermons, who had cooked at Geech’s, brought Geech’s specialty sauce with her when she opened Connie’s Bar-B-Q at 1795 16th St. S in 1986, Wilson said.)
Deuces BBQ marks a comeback for both barbecue and Egulf, who volunteered that he has had brushes with the law. He has put drinking, drugs and clubbing behind him, he said, and wants to do more in the lives of his four children.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “All I can do is thank the Lord for giving me an opportunity to better myself and have a business of my own. I’ve waited 40 years for this.”
The Brayboys said a majority of the people involved in their work along the Deuces have spent time in jail or prison.
“Our whole concept is restoring buildings and trying to restore people’s lives,” said Elihu Brayboy. “They served their time. Now they’re just trying to restore their lives.”