Street Knowledge


27th Avenue in Northside / Liberty City

  • Although riots that rocked Liberty City in 1980 contributed to the loss of most of its businesses, a 2007 study by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit reported that one in five businesses in the area today areû at least 50 years old. Royal Castle has been there for at least 56 years.
  • Royal Castle is across the street from the Northside Centre, another neighborhood landmark that is generating excitment. Since 2002, New York-based Urban America has invested $14‚million in renovations to bring the center back. It has brought in national retail, including FootAction and clothing stores CitiTrends and Dots.
  • The size of a Royal Castle hamburger: 2 1/2-inches long, 2 1/4-inches wide, 1 3/4-inches thick
  • Population: 75 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic.
  • Median household income: $29,688.

The Last Castle

A hamburger restaurant where black customers once were banned has become a touchstone for the community.

Three emotions took Barbara Johnson when she saw the Royal Castle sign. First, shock. Royal Castle still exists? Then, hunger. I could use one of those good old hamburgers.

Then, delight: I've never seen so many black people at Royal Castle in my life.

When Johnson, 62, was growing up, she could only gaze from the outside at a Royal Castle restaurant, looking in as white people bit into palm-size hamburgers and drank birch beer.

Back then, blacks could get service only through a small side window.

"When I found out it was open, I just had to come in and sit down," Johnson said. "Because, you know, we couldn't sit down here until '65."

Royal Castle was once a Miami-based chain of restaurants. Now it's down to one -- at Northwest 79th Street and Unity Boulevard.

Founded by a Jewish family from Ohio, the store is now in the hands of a black man from Miami. And with the new owner, who started at the restaurant flipping quarter-inch-thick meat patties, Royal Castle became woven into the culture of black Miami -- the very group that was banned from dining there for decades.

The architecture still looks much as it did in the old days. At sunrise, the store's original "Royal Castl" glows over backlit white tile. Ten silver stools stand at the red and white counter. A '60s-era poster for Coca-Cola hangs on the wall.

"Original Royal Castle Burgers Sold Here" is painted on the windows in orange bubble letters, a reminder that the bestselling product here is nostalgia.

William Singer got the idea for Royal Castle in Columbus, Ohio. The only restaurant that stayed afloat there during the Depression, he would say, sold small hamburgers for pennies. It was a quaint chain called White Castle.

Bankrupt and desperate to be an entrepreneur, Singer tinkered with the name and took the idea to Miami in 1938.

By 1958, Royal Castle had grown to 58 stores in South Florida. They thrived in working-class, mostly white areas, where families bought the greasy patties layered in onions, pickles and mustard by the dozen.

Under Lawrence Singer, William's son, the chain blossomed to at least 185 stores concentrated in Miami-Dade County, with a few in Georgia and Louisiana.

All had strict rules. No more than 10 stools at the counter. No women behind the counter. No blacks sitting in front of it.

"We're following a social custom of long standing," Lawrence Singer told The Miami Herald in 1961. "Our policy is not to serve Negroes at the counter."

In the late '50s and '60s, sit-ins popped up throughout Miami. One Liberty City resident, James Brimberry, recalls waiting in Woolworth's to be served, only to be kicked out. He picketed department stores such as Burdines until he joined the Army.

"We were fighting for equality," Brimberry said. "We didn't necessarily want integration. That was George Wallace's word."

The local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality targeted Royal Castle. In January 1961, managers removed two black girls from seats at the counter.

"You wonder how we could have even allowed such things," Lawrence Singer, now 84, said. "They were terrible and horrible things. ... But when CORE started picking on us, we were actually starting to be trailblazers with integration."

In July 1964, after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the Singers sent word to employees: Blacks were now allowed at the counter. And the company needed to find black managers, quickly.

On Aug. 16, 1964, Royal Castle hired James Brimberry. Straight out of the Army, he was desperate for a job.

"They needed a black face," Brimberry said. "And being from the military, they knew that I would be able to withhold animosity and my tongue and my anger, and deal with some of the things that would be thrown in front of me."

Brimberry tried to be flawless. He always arrived on time. He spoke with perfect grammar. He kept his white uniform clean.

Within months, a white customer refused to eat the food Brimberry served, and spewed a racial slur at him.

Brimberry said nothing. But his ambitions changed. He said to himself: "One day, I am going to own this company."

SAGGING PROFITS

In the late '60s, as profits sagged, the company tried new marketing tricks.

Royal Castle lowered the price of its 19-cent burger to a nickel in 1968 after The New York Times reported President Richard Nixon saying, "What the country needs now is a good five-cent hamburger."

Then, The New York Times issued a correction. Nixon really said 50 cents. It went to show that cheap burgers were no longer in fashion.

In the midst of a family dispute, Singer grudgingly sold the company to Minnie Pearl, a comedy star at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, in 1969.

The menu expanded to include breakfast, but nothing could keep the chain afloat.

On Aug. 29, 1976, the company left the name and eight stores to the last person on the payroll, then the assistant manager of operations. His name was James Brimberry.

SENTIMENTAL VALUE

Over time, Brimberry sold seven stores. Only one of them, at Northwest 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, got to keep the name -- after a legal battle that Brimberry lost -- but it burned down in 2005.

Brimberry is 66 years old now. Bald with a gray beard, he walks through the restaurant with a cane, a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots.

"I dress like this so I can tell people the story," he said. "The original cowboys were black. ... We have to hold dear to our history."

Brimberry also thinks there are some things that have to change. Six of his 14 employees behind the counter are women. Almost all the people in front of the counter are black.

He has added "country food" to the menu: grits, runny eggs, soupy eggs, pork chops, ham. The best seller is the $10.99 T-bone steak.

"This is our food," said William Houston -- nicknamed "Slim" -- who started coming to Royal Castle when he was a bus driver 30 years ago. Now retired in Miramar, he's still coming. "All my friends come to this store to sit and talk about everything -- the news, our lives, politics. Jim, we know him. He won't kick us out. We feel like it's our own."

He sat next to his friend J.C. Sears, a retired truck driver with a big laugh and belly.

As Brimberry approached, Sears eyed him and said: "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be in the shape I'm in."

A stream of customers came and went, in wonder.

"My grandfather used to have breakfast at the Royal Castle in Cutler Ridge every Saturday, and I'd be with him,'' Bennette Moultry, 47, of Cutler Ridge said. "I come in here, and, wow, it just reminds me of him."

"My husband, he loves the hamburgers," said Theresa Williams, 51, as she ordered half a dozen. "It gives him gas, though. Still, he wants it. I buy it because I love him."

And Reggie Brown, 29: "I could go to McDonald's, but I like this place more. It's black-owned."

Brimberry also has a catering company, and he works as a real-estate agent.

"This place is nothing but business to me," he said as he sat at Royal Castle's counter. "Just another business."

He slouched, then looked in the direction of the side window, the only place where he himself could get a burger in the old days. Tears welled.

Years ago, the window's glass was knocked out; it was boarded up and painted over.

"You know, I have to admit, there is a sentimental value to this place," Brimberry said. "This is Royal Castle."

He puffed his chest.

"And I own it."

Copyright 2008 The Miami Herald Media Company