Simple Soul marks first year serving Southern staples on Montgomery Street

In the front corner of Simple Soul of Savannah hangs a stunning photograph of Vernell Jackson. Donned in a crisp white blouse and patterned skirt, she rests her right hand casually atop a waist-high wall, her left arm akimbo. The vintage black-and-white image is of Jackson in her 30s, her eyes fixed on the camera, her smile confident and brave.

That is Rachel Silvers’ grandmother, and any story about Simple Soul that does not principally reference Mrs. Vernell Jackson would be woefully incomplete.

“This is my favorite picture of her,” Silvers said of the framed photo whose border is filled with endearments written by relatives who were present at Jackson’s 80th. “She looks all sassy and young. She was a diva at heart.”

“She is my primary reason for being back here,” Silvers added.

Contrary to the apocryphal axiom, it is not 90 percent of new restaurants that fail within their first year. Still, the more widely verified figure of 60 percent underscores why I have never opened my own place: no guts and no capital.

To create Simple Soul, Silvers invested a lifetime of the latter and more than equaled that in the former, a family trait that is visible everyday in her restaurant that recently celebrated its first year in business.

Just take one look at her grandmother’s face in that photograph.

STILL CARING FOR PEOPLE, NOW THROUGH FOOD

“I’ve done a lot of things,” Silvers said humbly of an impressive career in healthcare before admitting that prior to opening this eatery she had virtually no restauration experience.

Her 30 years of taking care of others included being a registered nurse for 15 and a nurse practitioner for the other half during which time she held an adjunct professorship at UNC Chapel Hill and started own private psychiatry practice.

Food came into her future sights when the Savannah native began returning to town in 2020 to care for her grandmother.

“She needed some support,” Silvers recalled. “She had been pretty independent prior to the pandemic, but when everything shut down, it was just a whole different ball game.”

No more trips to the senior center or to church or simply out to go shopping for Grannie Vernell, so Silvers went virtual with her practice and traveled back and forth to “juggle all of it”: how long her practice would last online, how long and to what degree her grandmother would need her, and what a permanent move to Savannah would mean.

“The pandemic was really hard for psychiatry and mental health,” Silvers said. “People struggled with losing family members, losing their businesses, so there was a lot of grief, a lot of anxiety about what [was] happening and what [was] going to happen.”

While working long hours helping others cope with COVID and its ripple effects, she began “romanticizing opening a little restaurant.”

Late in 2020, when she was hunting for housing in Savannah, 1915 Montgomery St. popped up as a three-bedroom three-bathroom apartment, the upper floors of what is now Simple Soul.

“I scrolled a little bit further down, and it said ‘turnkey restaurant, still operating’,” Silvers recalled.

Little King had been owned and cheffed by Samuel and Delphine Keye before Samuel passed away in December of 2020. When Silvers reached out to Delphine early in 2021, the building had already been leased, though Wolf’s Fried Chicken soon fell prey to the chicken wing shortage, and then the owner’s mother passed due to COVID complications.

“This must be fate: she called back again,” said Silvers, though she quickly said she was not one to “recreate meaning.” Still, the spark was relit.

“Lord have mercy, it took us so long trying to get things together,” she said of the “slow, painstaking process” after she signed the lease in the fall of 2021 and what became 18 months of preparations. “My grandmother’s needs were increasing, and we were just trying to figure things out.”

The following spring, Silvers began repainting, redecorating, and repurposing left-behind dining tables and kitchen equipment, supplementing here and there. Other than some plumbing issues, most of the necessary renovations were cosmetic.

Because Little King had served soul food and Delphine Keye had initially agreed to stay on in some capacity, Silvers decided to stay true to what was dearest to her culinary heart, and Simple Soul of Savannah was born.

HOME COOKING IN YOUR HOME AWAY FROM HOME

“My vision for this place was creating that same sort of comforting, nurturing, homey, safe space where we all relate to food,” said Silvers, whose restaurant served its first customers on April 19 last year.

“I’ve been cooking all of my life, recreating Momma’s recipes and Grandma’s recipes,” she continued. “Doing that on a mass scale with a level of consistency was the only thing to figure out.”

Silvers said that, from the outset, her intention was to provide fare that offered the same “sentimental, comforting, nostalgic feel of traditional soul food” while “decreas[ing] the health burden” that naturally comes with country cookery.

The self-professed “girl of the South” wanted to serve all of her personal favorites, and Simple Soul’s more-than-ample menu makes for a What’s What of classic “home recipes.”

“It’s an amalgamation of all of the home recipes, not things they teach you at cooking school,” she said.

The turkey wings follow the recipe of her paternal grandmother, what Silvers called “my most beloved meal sitting in her kitchen or at her dining room table,” and the baked chicken is her mother’s rendition.

The pork is the marriage of her mother’s smothered chops and her best friend’s chops grilled with rosemary.

“I’m telling you, it’s delicious,” Silvers said happily. “It’s been a fan favorite.”

Intentionally, no meat can be found in any of the vegetable sides, and no MSG is added to any of Simple Soul’s food.

“We try to be super-conscientious about simplifying it to the basics: salt, pepper, herbs, and real vegetables,” she added.Fried fare is available, though the menu primarily features baked and grilled entrées with the crispy bits making up the minority of the mains.

“Fried chicken is classic Southern and fried okra. We do fried fish and fried shrimp as well, but you can also get those grilled,” said Silvers.

“It’s been really interesting,” she said of which items have been most popular in the first year of business. “We get a good play on most of the staples.”“In the early days, we occasionally contemplated dropping something from the menu, but now that we’ve gotten a little bit more traffic, everything sells”—a great problem to have.

ALL IN THE EXTENDED FAMILY

Silvers herself is the owner, general manager, and executive chef of Simply Soul, but she shies from any such attention.

Her oldest daughter, Destiny, moved to Savannah after graduating from UNC Greensboro in 2022. Food service put her through high school and college, and those skills helped her mother “put systems in place,” per Silvers.

“My daughter has been instrumental, bringing her ideas and her food experience,” she said.Destiny Black’s college roommate, Emory Howell, also moved down to become part of the team, and Joy Black, Silver’s “baby girl,” works part time in the family-built and self-funded enterprise.

Not long after opening its doors to customers, Silvers opened her heart and opened up Simple Soul’s kitchen to other area caterers and private chefs who do not have their own restaurants.

“Local chefs who may not have a brick-and-mortar, we hire them to come in and to cook their food,” she said of the pop-up opportunities.

“For me, it was an opportunity to be able to share this platform with someone else who has this diehard passion for cooking but may not have the capital or resources to do it,” she added. “It feels really good to be able to do that.”

Thus far, Brittany Harding (Britt’s Kitchen) has helmed three Caribbean pop-ups, April Nicole (Miss Katie’s Sweets food truck) has come in three times to prepare vegan cuisine, and Rasa Rumah Cooking (Guyton, Georgia) turned Simple Soul into an Indonesian-Filipino eatery once.

These events are not regular dates on the calendar and have all come about “based on when someone inquires,” Silvers said.

“It’s been really challenging working on the business when you’re working in the business,” Silvers said, perhaps coining an entrepreneurial adage.

Right as she decided to take the proverbial plunge, she took an eight-week comprehensive course on the food and beverage industry at Wake Tech (Raleigh, North Carolina). Since Simple Soul opened last April, goodhearted customers have offered Silvers advice, and she has availed herself of Small Business Assistance Corporation mentoring and has taken business start-up courses.Now, it is down to applying those lessons to day-to-day operations.


BUILDING A FOOD FOLLOWING

Silvers said that early trade came from locals, people in the neighborhood who had patronized Little King or Wolf’s and who were happy to see another restaurant had opened in the same space.

At the same time, she thinks that some folks saw the word “vegetarian” on the marquee and incorrectly assumed that Simple Soul offered an entirely vegetarian menu. Steadily, it has built a reputation as a homey space where the food is good and the people are friendly.

“The community has been really responsive, which has been helpful, and now, we’ve gotten a bit of traction,” Silvers said, estimating that at least 40 percent of their clientele are visitors staying in neighborhood AirBnBs plus word-of-mouth traffic generated by Uber drivers and hotel employees.

“Our regulars keep us alive, and people tell others about us, which feels really great,” she said.

“It’s been such a growth experience for me to be in this space,” Silvers said. “There were a lot of times when I was wondering, ‘What have I done?’ and ‘Are we going to survive?’ Sometimes, that’s still the thought: ‘Are we going to survive financially?’”

Not long into the project, there was an issue with the building, serious enough that Silvers briefly considered pulling out, but a quick conversation with an individual involved in the redevelopment of Montgomery Street’s 1800 block reassured her.

“If you can just figure out how to hang on,” she remembered him saying, “you will be okay.”

“Here we are,” Silvers said with a smile. “I’m really excited. I feel really blessed to be in this space and a part of the community.”

“We’re just going to keep tying knots and hanging on.”

This past February, Vernell Jackson passed away, but when you visit Simple Soul, you will see that she is still here, in the food her family serves, in the sweet determination in her granddaughter’s smile, and in that photograph on the wall.

Simple Soul of Savannah is open Monday and Thursday through Saturday (11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.) and Sunday (11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.); closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

     
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