ST. PETERSBURG — Shirley Tigg flipped open a "two-dollar holler,'' grits, eggs and a couple of turkey sausages in a Styrofoam container. The popular, cheap carryout breakfast sold at Midtown service stations and meat markets spelled doom for her Shirley's Soul Food Diner, she said.
Wednesday, though, as she sat at the counter of the restaurant she reluctantly closed two months earlier, the retired customer service representative was hopeful. Shirley's Soul Food was reopening.
Beside her sat new business partner Ron Donaldson, 43, a former franchisee of a Hungry Howie's pizza store and two Subway restaurants. Neither would divulge the details of their partnership, but Tigg, 71, seemed happy with the arrangement that would allow her to return to work and her restaurant. "I wouldn't have all the overhead,'' she said. "That's a blessing.''
For his part, Donaldson is vowing to catapult the homespun operation into the 21st century. Last week, he declined to say how much he's spending to renovate the diner at 1789 34th St. S, but said in an earlier interview that "well over $30,000'' had gone into updating the property.
"More than the money, I've invested my heart in this,'' the St. Petersburg native said.
As renovations continued last week, Donaldson spoke of his plans for the reopened restaurant. A soft opening this weekend would be followed by a grand opening Saturday, he said. He pointed to the cleaned and polished terrazzo floors and said the 1,200-square-foot diner would now have central heat and air. A new dishwasher was being delivered, along with a new sign.
Miss Shirley's homestyle menu was being revamped as well. Salads, omelettes, turkey meats and broiled fish will be served alongside traditional soul food favorites like stew beef, oxtail, yellow rice, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, peach cobbler and five-layer red velvet cake.
And chitlins, Tiggs said quietly. Not yet, said Donaldson.
"We're going to have a full breakfast,'' he continued. "We're going to have an outrageous omelette, fresh pancakes and French toast. And we don't want to forget Miss Shirley's signature lemonade and ice tea.''
Donaldson said he has hired a marketing consultant and plans to buy radio spots. The restaurant will expand its hours, serving dinner daily and staying open until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It will offer catering and on Sundays, curbside service will be available. A server wearing headphones will take orders at the curb. "Hopefully, you can be in and out in less than seven minutes,'' Donaldson said.
If the venture is successful, he envisions replicating it at other locations. But some of his past ventures appear to have gone awry. The St. Petersburg Times reported in 2008 that his Construction Specialties company failed to get permits for work performed for West Coast Players, a community theater troupe. The article said that much of the work had to be redone. Donaldson said last week that the issue had been mischaracterized and that his company had been asked to help with the project after members of the theater company tried to do the work on their own.
That same year, he filed for bankruptcy. Court records indicate that there was an order denying confirmation of the Chapter 13 plan and that the case was dismissed. Donaldson said he dropped the petition after reaching an agreement with his bank.
Donaldson, who has a history of tax liens and judgments, lost his Three Oaks Commerce Center at 18th Avenue S and 16th Street to foreclosure. He is also on probation for failing to pay state sales taxes. He was ordered to make $23,520 in restitution. Court records state that Donaldson said he had used the sales tax to keep his business open. He told the Times last week that his troubles started when the man to whom he sold his Hungry Howie's business failed to pay the taxes. He said he had kept the pizza store at 30th Street and 18th Avenue S in his name because he was financing the sale.
Donaldson said he has made mistakes. "I've had challenges in the past to grow where I am now. And these challenges have come to better equip me for the adventures ahead,'' he said. "I'm bouncing back from my setbacks."
The problems in his background surprised Tigg. "I don't know what to say,'' she said. "I believe in him. He seems to be a real trustworthy man. I am helping him as well as myself. I think we'll make it. All these years I've been in trouble, nobody ever offered me any help, but he's the only one that has ever come to me. I need to work. There are not too many companies that would hire me at my age.''
Tigg, who worked for GTE for 22 years, opened the restaurant in 1986, at 1550 16th St. S, five years before retiring. She moved to the old-fashioned diner in 1999 to accommodate the thriving business. In recent years, though, business declined. In June, the Florida Department of Revenue issued a warrant for $1,550.60, including penalty, interest and fees, for delinquent sales tax. Tigg closed the restaurant the following month.
Many said the African-American community had lost an icon.
Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.