Shirley's Soul Food Diner, where a community gathered for conversation and counsel over eggs, bacon, sausage and grits or meats fried and smothered and served with sides of greens and blackeye peas, closed suddenly last week.
For regulars, the end did not come without warning. A sign on the door announced the July 28 closing. Another hung behind the counter lined with aging stools.
"We will be officially closing today at 4 p.m. Thank you for your patronage throughout the years,'' the handwritten sign visible through the locked door at 1789 34th St. S said Monday.
Owner Shirley Tigg, 71, could not be reached for comment, though. At her tiny Midtown home, where the dirt yard had recently been raked of twigs and leaves, a man said people no longer had money to eat out.
The African-American community has lost an icon, said former educator the Rev. Martin Rainey. To St. Petersburg NAACP branch president Ray Tampa, it was Tigg who was an institution.
"No matter where she's gone, people have followed her cooking. I used to love to go there and get her meatloaf or turkey wing dinners with blackeye peas, yellow rice, corn bread. There were times where I would order two meals at once,'' Tampa said.
Those who frequented the 1950s-style diner say Shirley's was more than a place to eat.
"I could put my fliers in there about any event I was having, or other people from the community could put their fliers in there. When things went on in the community, there was dialogue in there,'' said activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter.
"You got these little old men, the little deacons, they eat and give ideas and people come to talk to them. It was like we were like a family. It was like back in the day, when our community was a family.''
It was at Shirley's that Mayor Bill Foster held his first public breakfast meeting earlier this year. He had heard that business was down and encouraged those who met with him that day to buy a meal. The boost in business at the 50-seat restaurant was temporary, however. In June, the Florida Department of Revenue issued a warrant for $1,550.60, including penalty, interest and fees, for delinquent sales tax.
Lassiter, who said she has known Tigg for many years, encouraged the restaurant owner to seek help from the city of St. Petersburg's Business Assistance Center. In fact, said Shrimatee Ojah-Maharaj, assistant director of community enrichment and the center's manager, the office had been working with Tigg since the beginning of 2009, offering cost-cutting ideas, marketing strategies and help applying for a loan through the stimulus program.
"She was trying to put some of this in place,'' Ojah-Maharaj said.
"In the meantime, she was trying to carry on her business and trying to keep it afloat, because this is her passion and this is her life.''
Lassiter said Tigg opened her business after retiring from GTE, where she had worked for almost 30 years. The soul food restaurant, which opened on 16th Street S in 1986, quickly became popular.
"There were lines of people. The seating was always taken,'' community leader Watson Haynes remembered.
The popularity continued after the move to 34th Street S. Lassiter even convinced then-council member Foster to give free legal advice at the diner. Foster's only requirement was that anyone who showed up had to buy a meal.
"Shirley's was a place where you were guaranteed to run into community family and some of the leadership,'' said state Rep. Darryl Rouson.
"It was inexpensive, good down-home cooking. I used to like the turkey wings in like a smothered sauce and every now and then she'd have some oxtails and the macaroni and cheese was always good."
"Shirley would cook it, cook it right, then it was gone,'' Haynes said. "People knew it was always fresh, always cooked the same day and if they didn't get there in time, it was gone.''
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.