DADE CITY — It's lunchtime at Steph's Southern Soul Restaurant, and the parking lot is packed with pickup trucks. Customers, many of them farmers who have completed a day's work, seek the comfort of food and a friendly hostess. They move cafeteria-style past Stephanie Reaves as she serves steaming meals seasoned with the special ingredient she credits for her success.
"Inspiration," Reaves said. "It's all straight from the heart. I'm motivated by the belief that wherever you guide, you provide."
Seven days a week Reaves, 55, rises at 4 a.m. to meditate and is on site by 5:45 to start breakfast. She serves three meals a day including fried chicken, meatloaf, ribs, chicken and dumplings, rice dishes, vegetable casseroles and pastries. Fresh greens and fruit arrive on a rotating basis from Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.
Last December Reaves and her husband of 20 years, Herold, purchased the long-vacant property at 14519 Fifth St. from the Findlay family. Many locals remember the site once operated as a barbecue restaurant. The couple spent the next three months brightening the 1,500-square-foot space with renovations — new bathrooms, installation of appliances and 16 tabletops.
On March 23, Reaves opened her doors to a community that, 32 years prior, had changed her life. She was running away from her first marriage and had friends in Dade City. They helped her build a support network.
"I'd left Plant City with three young boys," Reaves said. "After spending one night sleeping in the car, I said never again."
She accepted a dishwashing job at the old Crest Restaurant in Dade City. On her first day she was promoted to cook. For eight years she supervised the popular downtown eatery, shared stories about her farming background with locals and created a special bond with her first landlord.
Claudia Madani was looking for a tenant to live in her mother's former home. She loved that Reaves would fill the Coleman Avenue property with irresistible aromas, and the two mothers visited each other to share and test recipes. Madani's husband, Dr. Behrouz Madani, delivered one of Reaves' sons and their children played sports together.
"We developed a deep connection," said Madani.
In 1989, Reaves returned to her rural roots in Plant City to cook at Buddy Freddys restaurant. Her recipes contributed to the business expanding and earned her a promotion to manager. She coordinated a staff, conducted all the ordering, oversaw ingredient inventories and spread more of her love.
This year, she needed all her time and energy to establish Southern Soul. Yet she agreed to devote two days a week to Buddy Freddys when one of her favorite customers lamented, "Who you gonna train to be Stephanie?"
As a proprietor, Reaves remembers her regular guests' preferences and watches their waistlines closely.
"I'm concerned," she said. "I see the weight gain and can't let them do like that."
That's when Reaves gently steers a few toward the many dishes not cooked with ham hocks or fat.
"Soul cooking is more about gravy than Southern cooking," she said. "The difference is that I know my produce and won't use lard or MSG."
Not that any of her dishes are easy to resist. Dade City structural engineer David Smith is a regular.
"Every other day I got to have the meatloaf," he said. "And the peach cobbler is better than my grandmother's."
Reaves buys 400 pounds of chicken a week. Every dish and dessert is prepared fresh daily. A meal with two side orders and corn bread costs $7.99. Smaller plates also are available.
"She and Mr. Herold are amazing," said her friend Madani. "The food is her testament."
Last week she catered a Fourth of July party for 150 and regularly cooks for business events. Her ultimate goal is to expand Steph's Southern Soul to five more locations — one each for her sons — perhaps in New Tampa, Atlanta, Wildwood, Leesburg and Ocala.
Meanwhile, there's a "help wanted" sign in the window. Reaves is expanding from a staff of seven.
"My husband always says we don't play radio here," Reaves said. "It's all about the work."