Assunta Fisher's eyes welled as she spoke about fulfilling her dream of opening a restaurant in one of the city's oldest diners.
"It hasn't hit me yet that I got the restaurant,'' she said, wiping away unexpected tears.
In the hectic weeks since the May opening of her Manna From Heaven Wings & Soulfood restaurant, she has had little time for reflection.
Besides the tension associated with a new business, the St. Petersburg native has had to deflect a string of annoyances, the detritus of recent failures by others to make a go of the old-fashioned diner at 1789 34th St. S. The site is best known as the former home of Shirley's Soul Food, which closed suddenly last summer.
Fisher's restaurant, which serves a down-home diet of grits, fried chicken, smothered pork chops, gizzards, oxtails, banana pudding and other Southern comforts, is doing well, she says.
"It's keeping the bills paid,'' she said. "I've been able to hire two full-time waitresses."
One Sunday, it served more than 130 meals.
Fisher, 40, looked over the diner soon after Shirley's closed but had just opened a smaller version of her current restaurant in a Sunoco gas station at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue N.
"I only had eight seats, so it was a lot of takeout,'' she said.
Meanwhile, Shirley's reopened, keeping its name, but under the ownership of Ron Donaldson, a former franchisee of a Hungry Howie's pizza store and two Subway restaurants. He and Shirley's former owner, Shirley Tigg, made a business arrangement but had a falling out, and the venture soon fizzled.
Fisher inquired about the property again, but she realized she couldn't extend herself financially to run two restaurants. Still, she remained hopeful about moving to the diner.
"I kept my eye on it. I kept calling the landlord," she said.
Others came and went. Mike Atwater of the now closed landmark Atwater's Cafeteria at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 22nd Avenue S decided to try his hand, but his effort didn't get off the ground. An establishment called Zyanya's Diner followed. That, too, closed.
• • •
With her lease at the gas station ending in June, Fisher was able to pick up the key to the coveted diner on May 25 and opened Manna From Heaven the next day. But the notoriety of a succession of failures at the 34th Street S location followed her.
"The vendors, they didn't want to deal with me,'' she said. "Progress Energy, they just had me sign a paper that this was a new company."
The "juice guy" wanted to take back his juice machine, she said.
On a particularly frustrating day, the single mother, whose children are 21, 20 and 10, found herself scribbling a prayer of hope on a whiteboard behind the counter. "God is a good God & he is worthy of praise!! I will bless the Lord @ all times. Praise will continually be in my mouth! Oh bless the Lord w/ me!" she implored.
"It's smoothing out,'' she said.
"I have a lot of new customers coming. They are saying, 'You passed the test.' "
Joe Bryant, who owns a catering business, Smokin' Joe's, eats at Manna From Heaven almost daily.
"I usually do the breakfast and the lunch, too,'' the Gulfport resident said as he finished a plate of fried chicken, candied yams and four-cheese macaroni.
"The food is good, and the price is right. Here, the owner is hands on. She's always here, so you can always say, let me talk to the owner … I envision people waiting on line to get in the door.''
Fisher learned to cook in her grandmother's kitchen and later managed several fast-food restaurants. She used to own a uniform shop on Central Avenue, but she said the store failed after her supplier opened its own shop a block away. She is optimistic about her new venture.
"What I do is that I pay attention to being consistent. I do my best to make sure that the food is the same every single time, that we treat customers as we want to be treated and we go beyond,'' she said.
"Then the financial part of it is when the money comes in, the first thing you are responsible for is the bills. I have to be responsible for paying the bills and for inventory, and I have to treat the employees right."
Over the decades, her diner, a 1956 Mountain View model with expanded seating, has seen its share of longtime owners, carrying the names, Henry's, Kier's and Shirley's. Fisher hopes the name Manna From Heaven Wings & Soulfood will stick.
"Before I named the business, I meditated and prayed on it first,'' she said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.