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Diner owner wants to be the change in her St. Louis neighborhood but obstacles keep popping up

Diner owner wants to be the change in her St. Louis neighborhood but obstacles keep popping up

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ST. LOUIS • A yearning for a cup of coffee motivated Pat Woods to open Fresno’s Diner in the shadow of the giant Corinthian water tower on East Grand Boulevard.

She wanted not just a hot drink, but a table and chairs to go with it.

“It’s offensive that I had to get in the car and drive somewhere,” she said of restaurant options. “In our community, everything is carry out — out of a hole. There should be a place where a mom and dad can bring their kids.”

For four years, that place has been Fresno’s in the College Hill neighborhood.

But obstacles fly in the way. This fall, a stray bullet hit the door at Fresno’s overnight, when the metal guard was pulled down over the front windows and entrance.

At home on Thanksgiving, Woods had just pulled a turkey out of the oven when police fatally shot a 17-year-old boy across the street from her home on College Avenue and injured a 14-year-old. She said she struggled to get out of bed for three days after witnessing the immediate aftermath of the violence.

Then, over the weekend, a runaway Dodge pickup slammed a hole in the café, challenging her faith to keep trying.

So much so, that while assessing damage on Monday, Woods told of another dream. In it, she’s in her car, using the easy highway access to leave College Hill. Just driving until the gas tank runs dry.

“Wherever it stops, I’ll start a new life. Whatever spot that is,” she dreams. “That’s what this neighborhood has done to me.”

Woods is one of about 2,000 people who call College Hill home. Half of the families live on about $20,000 a year.

White flight drained the area, leaving parts of the old neighborhood looking like Greek ruins.

“We can’t wait on people to come from the outside,” Woods said. “I am trying to be an instrument for people who look like me.”

Woods, 61, who is African-American, wants the diner to attract more investors to north St. Louis and reclaim East Grand so that people will jump off Interstate 70 and drive to destinations such as the Fox Theatre and St. Louis University.

Perception is part of the battle. The per-capita crime rate from May through October was 39 per 1,000 residents, which is lower than 49 of the city’s 77 neighborhoods. But violent crime was up 23 percent from the same six-month period last year.

Fresno’s stands out from the bleak backdrop. Bibles are stacked in a corner, near a list of the Ten Commandments and an advertisement for the Chat Burger. Priced at $9.95, the “mouth watering” jumbo bacon cheeseburger and fries is meant for two people — to sit down and chat.

This is a family restaurant. On a recent day, Woods kindly yelled at her grandson to hurry up and serve a table of four. Then her son pulled up on a motorcycle, just in time to cook chicken wings and fries.

It was slow. Some days, hardly anybody comes.

Still, in October, Mayor Lyda Krewson named the eatery as neighborhood business of the year, based on 3rd Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley’s nomination.

“It’s hard to bring people to an area where you have gunshots all the time,” he said.

Bosley said it was important to create a development plan, set goals and pursue funding to bring in more businesses and spruce up homes, maybe even the giant water tower.

“It’s Grand,” he said of the historic boulevard. “It should look nice. Listen to the name — Grand.”

Coming home

This isn’t the first time Woods, a cancer survivor who lost one son to gun violence, has taken on the world.

Born in Mississippi, and with formative years in Harlem, she followed a man to St. Louis in 1977. When that didn’t work out, the single mother stayed here to face the realities of a recession. One day she stood in line for hours with hundreds of people aiming for a handful of jobs at Procter & Gamble, according to a profile of Woods in the Post-Dispatch that ran in 1988 with the headline: “Woman Built Dream Into Firm.”

When Procter & Gamble didn’t hire her, she said, she worked in community service and ran Freeman Bosley Sr.’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor of St. Louis, with the slogan: “Come alive in ’85.”

Woods landed on the assembly line in Fenton, spray-painting Chryslers. She invested earnings from that in an office-cleaning business she ran on the side, out of her home and Pinto.

“I was on a mission,” she said then.

She said Star Seven Employment grew to include clients such as Monsanto and R.J. Reynolds, across multiple states. Forward momentum even propelled her into a stint doing international business consulting — Morocco, France, the Caribbean — and other endeavors.

But home was College Hill.

Woods lives in a house she salvaged from near ruins in 1986. After people left the neighborhood in droves, she dug in. She said she paid $1,600 for the house on College Avenue and did a gut rehab.

“They said I was crazy,” she said.

A few years later, she also purchased the three-story brick building at 2017 East Grand that would become the restaurant. She said she paid $4,000 for the former meat market and a neighboring structure.

She saw potential. There was a storefront on the bottom floor, with apartments above — all in the shadow of the giant Corinthian water tower.

She initially wanted to open a beauty shop there. But after burglars stole a bunch of her equipment, she boarded up the place for 20 years. In 2008, brick thieves stole the rear walls, forcing Woods to make a decision: Rebuild or let the place go.

She said she borrowed $50,000 against her home as collateral to fix it. She also spent about $80,000 in savings.

It took six years to build Fresno’s just right and within budget. She bought equipment from auctions and liquidators, paying pennies on the dollar.

She received help from churches, Ranken Technical College graduates and good fortune that grew naturally out of a life leveraged by many pursuits and experiences.

Finding blessings

In 2015, Woods graduated from Columbia College with a bachelor’s degree in general studies. One day a former classmate from the school walked into the diner to install the alarm system.

“He was one of those millennial kids that don’t have a lot of hang-ups that a lot of people have,” she said.

He put Woods in touch with a friend who travels all over doing eating challenges. That’s how the Chat Burger Challenge was born at Fresno’s. Eat three Chat Burger meals in an hour, and they are free. You also get a T-shirt and your picture on the wall.

Cars have pulled up from Maine and Minnesota, the fruits of online advertising. Woods said only about 20 percent of her sales were dine-in. Most are take-out orders and catering.

On the days nobody in the area seems to have money left to spend, Woods can be found sitting in a booth, pecking away on a laptop. She’s working on a master’s degree in criminal justice.

On Saturday night, she finished homework and put up a small Christmas tree at Fresno’s.

Not long after closing time, the pickup lost control on East Grand and blasted a large hole in the brick wall in the dining area.

The building has been forced to close for now.

Despite her dream to get on Interstate 70 and drive away from College Hill, Woods is also tempted to pick up the old bricks once more. She counts blessings in the gas line that didn’t break, in the old brick walls that were thick enough to shield more destruction.

Data reporter Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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J.B. Forbes is a photographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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