Bill Gillespie’s students led him to Bozo’s.
A former assistant principal at Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, Gillespie would patrol the neighborhood, looking for kids who were anywhere other than their classroom. His prowls usually led him to the basketball courts at Riverside Park.
“I would ride up in my car and make ’em go back to school,” said Gillespie, who would become principal at Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes before retiring. “Didn’t need to do it more than once.”
On one of those sojourns, Gillespie stopped into Bozo’s Sub & Sandwich Shop, across the park, with a red-painted roof, red umbrella-topped patio tables and a sign next to the screen door that reads: “Subs. Salads. Burgers. Ice Cold Drinks.”
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What the sign doesn’t say: Friday is when Rosa “Rosy” Bozeman cooks up her fried chicken, liver and onions, smothered pork chops, oxtails, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, okra and tomatoes, collard greens and cornbread — served warm, slathered in butter. It’s Southern soul food — the rich dishes cooked up by the mamas and grandmamas who tilled the fields and left behind a cooking legacy that keeps Gillespie and scores of others returning to places like Bozo’s.
Did we mention Rosy’s cakes and cobblers? They sit in a two-shelved sliding-door steel cabinet atop the counter, standing sentry as you walk in and wait in line.
“I make about 20 different desserts,” says Rosy, Bozo’s 74-year-old owner, chief cook and mother to all. “Banana pudding, peach cobbler, yellow chocolate cake, German chocolate, Red Velvet, coconut, apple jelly coconut, butter pound, lemon pound, sweet potato pie. You name it; I make it.”
Oops, she almost forgot the caramel cake (“the No. 1 best seller”) and the pineapple upside-down cake, which won the Fort Lauderdale Bake-Off 20 years ago (the faded blue ribbon still hangs over the black-and-white menu board).
At lunchtime on Fridays, the line at Bozo’s is six to seven deep. No one’s in a big hurry, as friends hail each other and hug the three red-shirted ladies behind the counter: Rosy, Loretta and Eranestine. Judges and lawyers come over from the courthouse. School board members mix with principals, teachers and bus drivers. Families gather from nearby neighborhoods of Sailboat Bend and Riverside Park. Construction crews come in, as do county commissioners and even churchgoers on the way home from a funeral.
“Today I’m getting smothered pork chops, mashed potatoes, collard greens, a side of pigeon peas and rice and pineapple upside-down cake,” declares Della Marshall, who has known Rosy for 25 to 30 years, their kids childhood pals.
Marshall won’t eat all of that in one sitting, although others have been known to do so.
“Oh, no,” she says, “Rosy gives you enough to eat off of two to three times.”
Rosy gives back to many — her family, friends, church, customers and fellow cooks in the kitchen.
“It’s a blessing working with Miss Rosy,” says Eranestine, who has worked by her side for 13 years. “I had just started here and my mother had passed. She catered it all for me.
“She’s a mother, a friend, sister, big sister, Godsend.”
Faith plays a big role in Rosy’s life. Like the faith to open Bozo’s at the end of 1979 after years of working two jobs — a nurse by night, a restaurant hand by day.
“I worked in every restaurant on Sixth Street: Cooper’s Sundaes, Miss Carolina’s, Tasty Luncheonette, Dorsey Drive-In,” she says.
She made her way over to A1A and the old Seashore Hotel, rising to chef before answering a newspaper ad in the mid-’70s to buy a building for $35,000 that would become Bozo’s.
“There was nothing in here — only a sink and a toilet, and they were no good,” says Rosy, who drew up Bozo’s plans on lined graph paper, which she still has.
Like the faith to raise six kids — three boys, three girls — as a single mother, always making sure they had a home-cooked meal. (She married her husband Lawrence Bozeman — hence, Bozo’s name — when the kids were grown, although they were dating beforehand and he helped her open the restaurant.)
“My mom would go to work in the morning at the Seashore Hotel about 6 o’clock,” said her oldest daughter, Ferrell “Faye” Downing, 55, who works for the Broward County Clerk of Courts and is a regular at Bozo’s. “She’d come home at 2, cook a full-course meal, then go to work as a nurse from 4 to 12 at Plantation General.”
“We’re still eating the same foods — the chicken hasn’t changed, the macaroni and cheese hasn’t changed, the mashed potatoes haven’t changed — and they’re peeled, not instant.”
And faith to weather life’s storms, including five bouts with cancer, beginning with breast cancer in 2008. When the cancer hit her other breast in September 2012, Rosy put a sign on Bozo’s door: “Closed temporarily. Until further notice.”
Over the next 20 months, Rosy battled cancer in her breast, lymph nodes and lungs. Through the chemo, radiation and her hair falling out, she never lost faith. And when she was strong enough, she reopened Bozo’s on May 30 of last year, greeting her longtime customers.
“Everybody was in tears; everybody was crying,” said Rosy. “They all came back. We just cried and hugged.”
Faye says her mother’s faith kept her going: “Proverbs 3 and 5: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge him and he will direct your path. That’s her favorite Scriptures.”
Rosy agrees but adds her own spice. As Bozo’s cook and confidant, she can listen, love and fill people with good food — for their stomach and their soul.
“It’s why God has kept me here for so long.”
If you go
Bozo’s Sub & Sandwich Shop, 601 SW 12th Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Soul Food Fridays: Every Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Other days: Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sunday-Monday.