Soul food aficionados walked up to the restaurant, with its lemon-yellow front destroyed by fire and soot blackening its signs offering chopped cheese steak subs and chicken wings, and cried as if they'd seen their childhood home in ashes.
The Yellow Bowl in the 1200 block of Greenmount Ave., one of Baltimore's oldest black-owned restaurants, was destroyed yesterday by a grill fire that erupted at 5:21 a.m. as a cook served early-morning customers."Oh my Lord, oh my Lord! There goes the best place in the whole city," mourned Charlene Jamison, a 40-year-old secretary and lifelong customer, as she looked through the shattered window at the charred counters.
No one was hurt. Owner Jeffrey Fullard said he has insurance that should allow him to reopen in about three months.
But residents of East Baltimore's Johnston Square community took the loss as being much more than just that of the best soul food in the city - hog maws and chitterlings, ribs, stewed chicken, peach cobbler and bread pudding.
In a world of chain restaurants owned by far-off corporations, the Yellow Bowl to many is a symbol of a local black family's success and its determination to provide jobs and cultural pride to a down-and-out neighborhood.
"What we really mean to the community is obvious in the incredible amount of support we've had this morning since the fire," said Fullard, as he inspected the blackened stove, melted trash can and charred tin sheets dangling from the ceiling."People have been coming up to us and saying, 'We need the Yellow Bowl. You've just got to reopen," Fullard said. "My main goal is to open it back up as soon as possible."
The restaurant's history goes like this.
In the 1960s, Fullard's father, Youman Fullard, was a driver for the Yellow Taxi Company, which had an office and garage near Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street.
Two Greek businessmen ran a restaurant called The Yellow Bowl next door that catered to the Yellow cab company's drivers. Drivers would stop in for their coffee and eggs before work or grab a sandwich after work.
Youman Fullard would often chat with the owners, and he struck up a friendship with them. When they decided to sell the place in 1968, he bought the business, Jeffrey Fullard said."When my father first took over the place, he just wanted to give good service to the neighborhood," said the younger Fullard, standing on the sidewalk amid the acrid stench from the fire."But as he worked the business, he saw a bigger vision - to use the restaurant to keep the family united," Jeffrey Fullard said. "We all worked in the business - my two brothers, my sister. I started cleaning fish and washing pots here at the age of 9."
The restaurant did so well that the family opened a second location in 1975 in the 5100 block of Park Heights Ave.
The Greenmount Avenue grill's breakfast - with scrambled eggs and bacon, grits and biscuits - became a favorite of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. It drew crowds when rapper LL Cool J and members of The New Edition group stopped by."A real nice place. Old-fashioned food. Real nice people. You can really plug into the past here," said Schmoke during an interview with The Sun in 1988.
Schmoke ate with his mother at the Bowl when he was a teenager and as mayor hired the restaurant to cater several City Hall functions.
Jeffrey Fullard said he was working as manager at the Park Heights Avenue location about six months ago when his father, now 61, asked his son to take over the original restaurant to help pull it out of financial difficulties.
The son invested about $20,000 installing new kitchen equipment, painting and renovating.
At about 5:24 a.m. yesterday, he got a call at his home in Ashburton. A fire had erupted in the kitchen. He drove down to find that the Fire Department had blocked off the street. Running up, he was relieved to see that the fire was out. But then he surveyed the ruins: the blackened strips of wood hanging down, the ruined meat slicer on its side in a murky puddle."We've got some pretty serious damage here - maybe $200,000," he said. "My father came by, and he was upset. But we will reopen."
A parade of customers streamed past to wish Fullard well, shake their heads at the damage and talk about the Yellow Bowl.
The words were about fish, fried chicken, ribs, rice pudding, and sweet potatoes; about a simple place with yellow Formica counters and a jukebox always turned up loud. But they were also about pride and love and a place to call home in a neighborhood where many homes are boarded up."The Yellow Bowl is a cultural icon," said Ed McFadden, 51, a nearby resident. "It represents a lot of things to the people here. It represents black culture. It's a very special place, and people depend on it."
Darrell Edwards, 41, said: "This place had the best soul food in Baltimore. It's tremendous. And it isn't like going downtown, where you have to pay an arm and a leg for a sandwich. For $2, you can go in there and get a great meal."
Denise Banks, a 43-year-old home care provider for mentally retarded people who lives on Greenmount Avenue, sat on a stoop nearby and rattled off her favorites: collard greens, beans and rice, macaroni and cheese.
"If you were a few dollars short, you could always go in there, and they would serve you," Banks said. "Other restaurants would never do that. The Yellow Bowl hires people in the neighborhood. It's a black-owned business that never sold out."