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Tue July 22, 2014
Despite Pioneering Integration, Jumbo's Did Not Survive
Jumbo’s, a fixture of Miami's Liberty City, will serve its last batch of fried shrimp Wednesday. The diner has been open almost every hour since its first shift in 1955.
The restaurant gained a reputation for its bold move to integrate its staff in 1967, and owner Bobby Flam once saw a bustling dining room filled with black and white patrons. But the past decade has seen slowing business and crumbling décor.
The inside of the bright turquoise building on the corner of Northwest 75th Street and Seventh Avenue is almost like a look into the past: a large, rounded counter off to the right; plush booths tucked under tall windows; and specials on the menu named after local high schools.
Flam’s parents bought the restaurant in 1955 and he started working there when he was 10 years old.
“Its part of my life. It’s part of my legacy. It's part of my history,” he says.
And it's also part of Liberty City’s history. The Flam family says Jumbo’s was the first white-owned restaurant in Miami to employ blacks among whites -- even though some of the white employees quit after integration.
“It was 1966 and [Jumbo's] sort of lead the way for this uncivilized tradition that we had in South Florida [to come] to an end on this corner,” Flam says.
Jumbo’s was untouched during the 1980 Arthur McDuffie riots in Liberty City, but after that, Flam says the neighborhood — and his business — never really recovered.
Jumbo’s deep bench of regulars started to thin. Some of the old guard passed and others moved away. One booth is reserved for the few who still come around.
In 2005, Hurricane Wilma significantly damaged the dining room and Flam paid for those repairs out of pocket. Two years ago, a car plowed into the parking lot, pushing a truck through the front windows and into the dining room.
And Jumbo’s continued to try to make it in the neighborhood. But now a developer, whose name Flam didn't reveal, bought the restaurant.
“In this neighborhood, which is really economically depressed, we try to cater to everybody,” says Greg Alexander, who has been with Jumbo’s for 14 years. “We got $3 and $4 lunches, but Checker's and McDonald's got $1 lunches.”
The developer wants to build a mix of shops and housing on Jumbo's land.
The move excites Flam. He thinks the neighborhood might just need something new.
“I tried,” says Flam, “I gave it my best. I just couldn't make it happen, and hopefully it’ll happen now.”
The 68-year-old also thinks there's still a future for Jumbo’s. He has been exploring the idea of opening a couple of franchises, like at Sun Life stadium or Marlins Park.
“You’ll see the name Jumbo's up in lights again,” he says.
At lunchtime on its closing day, there was a line outside the old building.