He toiled for 32 years, sweating six days a week over deep-fat fryers, hauling trays of ribs and scrubbing floors, all the while dreaming of turning the spoils of his labor into a vacation to Jamaica or Paris.
By last year, Youman Fullard's Yellow Bowl at 1234 Greenmount Ave. had become one of Baltimore's oldest black-owned restaurants - an institution praised for serving some of the city's best soul food and frequently called on to cater events at City Hall.
After turning the business over to his son last year with the hope of retiring, Fullard, 61, was devastated when his restaurant burned in a kitchen fire on May 12. Worse yet, Fullard discovered, the restaurant's insurance policy had lapsed.
Instead of retiring as he had planned, Fullard spent all of the money he had saved up for travel - about $70,000, including contributions from his son, Jeff, 35 - and worked 10 hours a day for the next four months with his son to rebuild the restaurant. They plan to reopen Sept. 18.
More important to Fullard than his dreams of seeing the world was his determination to keep alive a restaurant whose lemon-yellow facade had become a symbol of hope to a neighborhood in which residents sometimes despair about the lack of black-owned businesses.
"I would have loved to go to Paris, Jamaica, Trinidad - but this is more critical: to fix up a place that means so much to my family, the neighborhood and the city," said Fullard. "I'm not bitter. At least we had saved up enough money to rebuild and reopen the restaurant."
Loyal customers say they eagerly await this month's return of what had become a warm and lively neighborhood gathering place - a kitchen table around which everyone could gather - in a community torn by unemployment, crime and drug addiction.
Calvin Lilly, a 36-year-old Baltimore Convention Center worker who lives nearby, has stopped every day to watch Fullard and his son rebuild.
On a recent afternoon, Lilly looked on as the father and son clung to a ladder and rolled yellow paint onto the restaurant's blackened front.
"That's the best news I've heard in a long time, that they will be opening up again soon," said Lilly.
Joe Chavis, a 40-year-old neighbor, smiled as he watched the yellow return to the Yellow Bowl.
"I'm proud for them," said Chavis, looking up at the Fullards. "They suffered a lot of adversity, and they are coming back. They have been here so long, and have always been so supportive of the black community, it's really good to see them back in businesses."
Youman Fullard is a former brewery worker born in South Carolina at the end of the Depression. He has a gravelly voice, paint-spattered hands, gray hair peeking from beneath his black baseball cap and an impatience for younger people who don't share his work ethic.
Taking a break from his painting, Fullard brushed the dust from one of the booths in his mostly rebuilt restaurant - with its new grill and coolers, power drill resting in a pile of sawdust, coils of extension cords snaking across the floor - to talk about what the business means to his family.
The original Yellow Bowl restaurant dates to 1921, when it got its name and most of its business from the Yellow Cab Co. office that used to be nearby at 508 E. Preston St.
During the 1960s, Fullard and his wife, Eva, ran a grocery store next to the Yellow Bowl. The restaurant's Greek-American owners decided to sell in 1968, when East Baltimore's Johnston Square neighborhood was changing from a largely white area anchored by clothing and shoe manufacturers to a mostly black community with a declining job base.
"The former owners of the restaurant taught me the right attitude. They said, 'If you're in business, you always have to smile and treat your customers politely, even if you know they are wrong,' " said Youman Fullard.
The Fullards adapted to the change in the neighborhood, switching their menu from Salisbury steaks, meatloaf and spaghetti and meatballs to ribs, bread pudding, chitterlings, fried and stewed chicken, collard greens, and peach cobbler.
Over the decades, all four of the Fullards' children - Venise, Youman Jr., Vincent and Jeff - got their start helping out their parents in the restaurant.
"You don't do something this long without developing a strong attachment to it," said Youman Fullard. "A lot of my children haven't had any other jobs."
In 1975, the family opened a second Yellow Bowl restaurant at 5131 Park Heights Ave. Business was humming along so well that Youman Fullard figured he could finally retire and travel. Then tragedy struck early in the morning on May 12, when a grease fire started on the grill and burned out the Greenmount restaurant.
Since then, the Fullards have been hammering up Sheetrock and paneling from dawn until past dark, working without the benefit of professional contractors (other than an electrician for the most difficult work.)
"A lot of people said they missed us and want us to come back as soon as possible," said Jeff Fullard, who started peeling potatoes in his parents' restaurant when he was 8. "That's exactly what we're trying to do."