Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Owner of Steph's Southern Soul in Dade City puts inspiration in every dish

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."

. If you go

Steph's Southern Soul Restaurant

14519 Fifth St., Dade City

(352) 437-5907

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Owner of Steph's Southern Soul in Dade City puts inspiration in every dish 07/16/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 16, 2013 7:15pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trump says 'we can use peace' during meeting with Pope Francis


    VATICAN CITY — President Donald Trump and Pope Francis, two leaders with contrasting styles and differing worldviews, met at the Vatican City on Wednesday, setting aside their previous clashes to broadcast a tone of peace for an audience around the globe.

    Pope Francis meets with President Donald Trump on the occasion of their private audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 24, 2017. [Associated Press]
  2. Pinellas construction licensing board looking for ways to fill financial hole

    Local Government

    LARGO — The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board's interim leader told the governing board Tuesday that the troubled agency is looking for ways to climb out of its

  3. Adam Putnam calls for special session on medical marijuana


    Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Republican candidate for governor Adam Putnam wants state lawmakers to come back to Tallahassee in a special session to finish the work on medical marijuana that they started but didn't finish earlier this month.

    Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam is a candidate for governor in 2018.
  4. We Tried That: Working on a food truck for a day


    What we tried: It seems like everyone and their mother wants to open a food truck.

    Carlynn Crosby prepares food at the Empamamas food truck in the Cigar City Brewing parking lot in Tampa this month. For a variety of reasons, food trucking is not for the faint of heart.
  5. Local child welfare non-profits lose funding as Eckerd Kids focuses on keeping children out of foster care


    When it comes to getting children out of foster care, the non-profit group Directions for Living has one of the best records in Florida.

    Eckerd Kids