Veteran waitress to open eatery on Eastern Ave.

January 18, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Fran Curran did not go into a deep funk when Woolworth's announced it was closing its store in Baltimore's Highlandtown.

As manager of the five-and-dime's food service, she had listened patiently to the stories of dozens of her elderly patrons as she served them coffee, eggs and potatoes at the store's classic lunch counter.

"I was told all this would be closing," she said as she gestured around the store in the 3500 block of Eastern Ave. in the business heart of Highlandtown.

"And I decided I ought to go out on my own," said Curran, who readily comes to mind when people think of a friendly, hard-working Baltimore waitress.

Early next month she will open Fran's Place in a former White Coffee Pot restaurant just across Eastern Avenue from the Woolworth store.

"There won't be any fancy food, just regular food, and run by my daughters and myself," she said.

Her sons-in-law are renovating the former neighborhood restaurant, which had been vacant for some time. Her daughters Cindy, Lisa and Nicole will work with mother.

"One of the boys [sons-in-law] is a painter and the other is in plumbing and refrigeration. They moonlight but I think we can make it," she said last week.

She remains on Woolworth's payroll, helping to sell the last few mismatched greeting cards, random cosmetics and pieces of kitchen crockery left in the store that has been a part of the Eastern Avenue retailing landscape since 1923. The store is in its last days of a going-out-of-business sale.

"I've worked at a lot of restaurants. Do you remember Eddie Leonard's Keg of Ale of Howard Street, Tyson Place on West Chase Street, the old Bee Hive near City Hall and the House of Welsh? And when I finished at the House of Welsh, I'd go to 203 Davis Street and tend bar," she said.

Fran Curran was 17 years old when she began working. Her first job was as a waitress. She began on Eastern Avenue in the White Coffee Pot she is now remodeling.

She will open under a different name -- her own. She has purchased some of the lunch counter equipment from Woolworth's. The original White Coffee Pot counter remains.

Curran is showing a lot of confidence in an old neighborhood that has been hard hit by plant closings, disappearing manufacturing jobs and heavy competition from the suburbs.

Many of Eastern Avenue's retailers have closed in the past few years. Woolworth's seemed like the death of one more old friend.

And while many people wring their hands and express regret about the troubles of a city neighborhood, here is a woman who is taking a bold step in another direction.

"I think there are a lot of people here who still want a little place where they can come in and get something to eat," she said.

Her family is from the 1300 block of S. Clinton St. in Southeast Baltimore's Canton neighborhood.

The street runs straight down to the harbor by the old broom factory, the oil drums, the warehouse terminal, the coal depot and fertilizer factory.

"Remember when the city said it was going to put that interstate highway through and took and tore down all those houses? Ours was the first one they got on our block of Clinton Street," she recalled of a 1960s highway plan that never came to fruition because of neighborhood opposition.

"I've been through a lot but I think I can make my own place work out all right. My severance pay from Woolworth's is going to help out. The gentleman who owns the building loaned me some of the money and he didn't know me from Adam," Curran said.

Commercial banks and the federal Small Business Administration were no help. "I've had 37 years in food service. You'd think that would count as something," she said.

Curran is counting on keeping her counter filled with the old Woolworth crowd, many of them widows and widowers who liked to come in and pass the time of day between medical appointments and shopping expeditions.

She has made friends with some of them. If her restaurant is anything like the Woolworth counter, it will be a place where friends meet for a noontime cup of coffee and an egg salad sandwich.

"I invited one of my regulars, Mrs. Kelly, to have Christmas dinner with my family. She did and had a good time," Curran said.

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