ST. PETERSBURG - Carolyn and Elihu Brayboy were a presence in Washington last week and they didn't even know it.
A blown-up photograph of the St. Petersburg couple and owners of Chief's Creole Cafe sat on an easel alongside Senator Bill Nelson last week as Nelson made an impassioned pitch on the Senate floor for investing in small businesses.
The Brayboys were Nelson's success story, an example of a small business that made it despite what many thought were long odds. The pair had no idea their story had been shared in Senate chambers until a reporter told them last week.
"I think that's quite a tribute," said Elihu Brayboy.
"It was quite a surprise for him to make a comment and call us by name," said Carolyn Brayboy.
That said, the shout-out wasn't totally random. Three of Nelson's campaign staffers ate at the creole spot last spring. They asked the Brayboys, who work the tables when they're at the restaurant, about the history of the place.
The St. Petersburg natives, both 69, dove into their story: the pair bought the building at the corner 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S in 2012 for $300,000, property records show. It had sat vacant for 35 years and they outbid a competitor who wanted to demolish the structure. They couldn't get any financing - lenders deemed that neighborhood too risky for investment, they said - so they drained their savings. The building continued to sit empty as the Brayboys struggled to find tenants.
Anxiety set in.
"She woke me up in the middle of the night and said 'what are we going to do with that empty building?' " Elihu Brayboy said. They decided instead to open a restaurant doing shrimp and grits, red beans and rice, food they grew up on.
"We didn't know all we needed to know, and that's probably what allowed us to get involved in this business, because we didn't know how involved it would be," he said. "We weren't as scared as we should have been."
After the Nelson staffers left that afternoon, though, the Brayboys didn't hear from the campaign again. Months later, their story echoed through the Senate.
"Now this is a great story of stubborn determination, triumphing over fear and adversity and rejection after rejection," Nelson said. "But this type of story is few and far between in too many parts of Florida and across the country."
Nelson went on to outline his vision of a healthy economy: relying less on outside investors and more on "local residents to create their own businesses." Just like the Brayboys.
Carolyn Brayboy agrees. She said the cafe employs 10 people, some with criminal records. And they plan to open barbecue restaurant Chief's Smoke House next to the Creole Cafe soon.
"That's not a big dent, but it's a dent," she said. "Small businesses are the backbone."
Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.