Bobby Flam Stands Strong
Jumbo's Restaurant, Miami
Bobby Flam is a James Beard Award winner forced by the economy to plaster local high schools with coupons for $5 shrimp specials. The concierge at South Beach's swank Delano Hotel sends celebrities his way. The homeless drift in on their own.
Flam, the owner of Jumbo's Restaurant, has been bucking the decline of his northwest Miami neighborhood through 44 years of race riots, hurricanes, and the exodus of most other white business owners, who were once his daytime clientele. "I stayed because I wanted to be an example that business could succeed here," says Flam, 65. "I thought things were going to change. They haven't, much."
Jumbo's is a 1950s reverie of aqua walls and laminated tabletops in which customer chatter competes with the splash-spit-'n'-sizzle of fry baskets striking hot oil. The dining room and exterior still show bruises from Hurricane Wilma in 2005, and profits have been battered since the recession made landfall. "I have the best fried shrimp in the world," says Flam. "I ought to be selling more. But the person who used to spend $10 is spending $3. The person who used to spend $20 is spending $5." Still, Flam feeds on average 10 homeless people a day. "I've never turned away a person that's hungry, and I never will," he says. "When I come in off the highway, all the guys begging on the corner know my name."
Flam has been a neighborhood force since he quit college in 1967 to take over Jumbo's from his ailing father. He quickly closed a room off the kitchen where black customers had come for takeout and opened the dining room to all, becoming one of the first South Florida restaurants to integrate. He was also, as far as anyone knows, the first to hire blacks. "Within a month, 30 of my white employees quit," says Flam, whose 24-hour business requires a large staff. "So I started hiring mostly black employees. I treated all my customers and employees with respect. I hoped other businesses would do the same."
While disdaining the chain restaurants that proliferate around him, Flam is a friend to local entrepreneurs. He recently allowed a woman to set up a Haitian-Caribbean buffet in a corner of Jumbo's, charging her at first nominal and then no rent, paying for her utilities and insurance, and giving her free run of his kitchen. Even with that support, her business failed. "She thought she could do $1,000 a day, but she couldn't even do $300," says Flam. "Meanwhile, I was losing business because some of my customers were eating from her. Anyway, we gave it a try."
Flam strikes a you-gotta-laugh-or-you're-gonna-cry attitude toward what he perceives as government's neglect of his area. ("I don't like to be negative, because I'm a positive person," he says. "But I know a lot of dirt.") Still, that hasn't stopped Jumbo's from becoming a regular photo-op stop for politicians. At night, sports stars from the Dolphins and the Heat swing by, and Flam hopes to persuade one to invest. "If I could get someone like that as a partner," he says, "I think I could bring the whole neighborhood back."