Jumbo’s, pioneer Liberty City eatery, closes its doors

 

a1fernandez@MiamiHerald.com

Bobby Flam doesn’t spend Tuesday afternoon packing boxes or stripping bare the walls of his beloved restaurant.

Doesn’t have the time.

“You want the shrimp or chicken?” Flam asks a longtime customer as he spouts different combinations of the two most popular items on the menu at Jumbo’s in Liberty City.

“Try this one.”

Flam, 68, doesn’t have the luxury of slowing down a day before his famous 24-hour diner is to close its doors forever after serving up some of the best fried shrimp, chicken and friendship to customers of all races for the past 59 years.

On this day, he is taking orders, rushing to the front to greet regulars, working that old cash register – even bopping over to the kitchen to make sure that things are running smoothly and enough staples are on hand to get through one more day.

“Do we have enough?” Flam asks an employee about the restaurant’s signature dishes. “I’d rather have enough than to run out.”

Jumbo’s, which sits in the heart of one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods, has withstood some turbulent times in South Florida’s history, but it remains a place where many comfortably use phrases like “family atmosphere” and “a safe place” – even when Liberty City was burning with rage and remains a community with one of the highest crime rates in South Florida.

But, come Wednesday, Flam will be stepping away. He says he wants to spend more time with his grandkids, but he’s not sure he’ll want to sit still. He may try opening a Jumbo’s in a different locale.

“When you say ‘Jumbo’s’ [in this community], that’s all you need to say,” said Kenny Knight, the restaurant’s franchise consultant and a longtime friend of Flam’s.

“It is an icon and an institution.”

Flam’s family bought the diner in 1955. He took over ownership from his father in 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act passed. At the time, most Miami restaurants, including Jumbo’s, did not hire black employees and refused to integrate their seating areas.

Flam changed that. To buck the trend in an era he often refers to as the “uncivilized times,” he hired three black employees.

Shortly after, 30 white employees quit. However, Flam did not waver. His restaurant stood the test of time, going on to become a civil rights landmark.

Over the years, Jumbo’s has survived major threats to its stability, including the 1980s civil disturbances, hurricanes and a fatal car accident in 2012 that crashed into the restaurant, killing two customers standing outside.

Arguably, the restaurant’s most trying time was during the 1980s racial disturbances when Miami erupted in violence. While other Liberty City businesses burned, Jumbo’s remained untouched, protected by its employees.

Its fame has since spread far past the boundaries of Liberty City.

In 2008, the New York-based, nationally known James Beard Foundation designated it as an “American Classic,” a distinction that only two other South Florida restaurants have earned - Joe’ Stone Crab in Miami Beach (1998) and Versailles in Little Havana (2001).

“This has always been a cool place to come,” said Robert Fertman, a retired endodontist. “Where else are you going to find a Jewish white guy running a restaurant with a mostly black staff and serving both black and white customers? Everyone gets along and everybody loves Bobby. It’s truly a unique place and I’m going to miss it.”

But the years have taken their toll. Business has slowed and the eatery needs a good general sprucing, inside and out. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma did major damage to the dining room; Flam paid for the repairs out of his own pocket. Two years ago, a drunk driver plowed into the parking lot, killing a local pastor and a deacon who had just finished eating and were standing outside chatting.

Flam sold the bright turquoise building at the corner of Northwest 75th Street and Seventh Avenue to a developer that he does not name - someone who wants to build a mix of shops and housing on the land.

As Tuesday’s afternoon crowd began to trickle in, the beloved locale with the nostalgic throw-back diner feel - right down to the round stools and black and white checkered tile floor - buzzed to life. Customers filled booths and tables, recalling tales of one of their favorite hangouts – its walls adorned with a mishmash of comic book covers, pictures of celebrities that have stopped by over the years and music album covers.

The noisy, old-fashioned cash register rests at a front table a few feet away from an unmarked arcade game that hasn’t worked in ages, but still has a sign advertising 50 cents to play.

“I met Bobby when I used to work for a black radio station 40 years ago and I met my clients here,” said David Levin, who owns an advertising agency with offices in Miami and Chicago. “This [place] has been a rock in the community. And you can’t get this kind of shrimp anywhere.”

The family atmosphere was palpable as former employees and old and new customers stopped in to say final goodbye.

“This was my first job when I was a teenager,” said Sylvia Tisdol-Rolle, who worked at the restaurant for eight years. “The most important thing I learned here was how to treat people. I was a teenage mom at the time and seeing how Bobby ran this place taught me the importance of character, integrity and morals. And, how you present yourself in this community goes a long way.”

In 1980, Tisdale-Rolle’s cousin, Mamon Tisdol became the restaurant’s first black manager. Even though he stopped working there in 2000, he has been stopping by Jumbo’s just about every day since.

“This was always a family affair,” Tisdol said. “We couldn’t wait to come to work. When all the clubs in the area closed up back in the day, all the people came here. We felt it was right to go on and keep the place running. I hate to see it go, but you know, all good things…… you know how it goes.”

WLRN Reporter Wilson Sayre contributed to this report.

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