An unpainted wooden shack sits charmingly out of place along Demere Road on St. Simons Island’s south end, the burnt red of the rusted tin roof serving as its most colorful feature.
The weather-beaten sign nailed to the front gable explains everything, but for most passersby it only further twists the riddle behind this island anachronism. “Hazel’s Cafe,” it reads in waning block letters above the fading Coca-Cola logo.
Yet, after Amy Roberts walked inside and closed the door behind her Tuesday morning, it was the contemporary surroundings outside the old building that suddenly seemed out of step with the times.
“This was a jamming little place,” Roberts mused, referring the community Hazel’s Cafe once served. “There was a rooming house across the street, then there was the Jackson Apartments on other side of where that brick home is now. There were juke joints and Wilma’s Theater, the Pavilion and the Atlantic Inn, which was down by the (St. Simons Elementary) school.”
She paused in her reverie to answer my question.
“It was all African American, of course,” she said.
Hazel and Thomas Floyd opened the cafe in 1947, banking on the post-war economic boom to generate business. Boy, did it. Hazel’s Cafe already was an iconic relic when it finally closed its doors to customers in 1978, some 40 years ago.
Thomas was from Hazelhurst, arriving on St. Simons Island after serving in the Army during World War II (1941-45). He was a darned good cook. Hazel was an island native, ready for a change of pace after having worked in Brunswick’s Liberty Ship yards during the war years. Together, the couple whipped up a recipe for success that would feed the community for three decades.
They served mostly takeout dinners, but the place also had a dining area with tables and a bar inside. On weekends, they would fire up the outdoor cooking pit and serve barbecue. Hazel would go down to the St. Simons Island Pier and catch crabs, which she prepared for customers in a variety of ways.
The menu at Hazel’s always pleased a clientele on the go. A lot of the folks worked in what is known today as the service industry — either at island resorts and hotels, or in private homes. Some worked also for local businesses, such as Fendig Signs, Amy said.
The cafe’s original cash register sits in a corner by the front door, with its nickel sized manual punch buttons. The bar running along the wall beside it is still there too. “And that’s the kitchen where they cooked all those fabulous meals,” Amy said. “Look at it — it’s all still the same. They made dinners and sandwiches, and on the weekends they would grill, have a low country boil, fix fried fish sandwiches, just whatever.”
Amy ought to know. Hazel is a cousin on her mother’s side. “I was coming around here since I was a baby, in the late ‘40s,” Amy said. Years later, Amy once drove Thomas all the way down to Miami, where he worked for a spell helping out his sister at her barbecue joint. Thomas, you see, had a wooden leg and could not drive.
“I drove him down there and left the car, and rode the bus back up,” Amy said. “He was a grill master, he used to cook before he went into the Army.”
The cafe operated seven days a week. On Sundays, Hazel would start cooking early, then head down the road to Emanuel Baptist Church for the service before returning home to feed the afternoon dinner crowd, Amy recalls.
Little else exists from those days, although descendants of the folks who contributed to this thriving African American community still live in family homes scattered around the island’s south end. The call to worship is still answered robustly each Sunday at Emanuel Baptist, as it has been since 1890.
And on college football Saturdays in the fall, a band of happy Georgia Bulldog fans infuse Hazel’s Cafe with life once again. They are the guests of St. Simons Islander and diehard Dawg fan Fred Marrs.
“I bought the place in 1994,” said Fred, owner of Pane in the Glass on Arnold Road near Ocean Boulevard. “We grill out back and have a lot of fun with it. Mainly, we just watch Georgia football.”
Historic preservation was not foremost on Fred’s mind when he bought the large plot that includes the cafe. He intended to move his business there, but new zoning rules nixed commercial use of the land. A daughter built a home on land behind the old cafe, and another daughter owns the land beside it. Restoring and reviving Hazel’s pretty much became Fred’s hobby.
“Most people would have just clear-cut the land,” Mars said. “I kept Hazel’s for me.”
And although Fred is white, it turns out he has a familial connection to Hazel’s. “My sister was his babysitter, and she lived just across the street,” Amy said of her late sibling Phoebe.
That would be the house on Demere Road where the “Don’t Ask Won’t Sell” sign is tacked boldly to a pole out front. A niece of Amy’s now lives there.
“Miss Phoebe took care of me when I was a little boy. Her daughter Cheryl and I used to play together. Miss Phoebe said I told her once, I want to marry Cheryl,” Fred said with a laugh.
Inside Hazel’s Cafe, little has changed except for a couple of modest flat-screen television sets, a billiards table and some track lighting. The many black and white photos of the island’s yesteryears include a portrait of the old proprietors, a handsome couple indeed.
The home Hazel and Thomas lived in remains standing next door, used today for storage. Fred intends for this little piece of the island’s past to stand for a long time to come.
“It’s going to be willed to my daughter and she said she’s not going to do anything with it,” Fred said. “It’s just going to be Hazel’s. It’s one of those things you keep forever.”