Let go as Woolworth shut, she opens own lunchroom

April 25, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

For the past six months, Fran Curran has been hauling deep-fat fryers and banana split glasses across Eastern Avenue.

Finally she was able to tape a sign across the door of her new restaurant: "Open for business Monday April 25 -- 8 a.m."

Curran had been the food service manager of the old Highlandtown F.W. Woolworth store before it closed its doors in January. Instead of searching for another job, or shedding tears over the demise of the five-and-dime's classic lunch counter, she decided to take a big risk, buy its equipment and open her own place.

As of today, she has her own restaurant, a comfortable lunchroom geared to the tastes, needs and pocketbooks of Eastern Avenue. By any luck, the old nickel-plated Woolworth counter seats should all be swiveling by breakfast time.

"If every person who has asked, 'When is she gonna open?' actually comes in here and eats, I'll have enough to buy the building," Curran said Friday as bottles of ketchup were being delivered.

Fran's Place, in the 3500 block of Eastern Ave., just across the street from the former Woolworth building, is a 40-seat restaurant with a bright blue awning, trim curtains and plastic tablecloths. Long-time Eastern Avenue shoppers recall it as one of the city's White Coffee Pot restaurants. Ironically, Curran once worked for that chain, too.

"The menu is home-style cooking -- meat loaf, liver, hot turkey, hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches," she said. She'll be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Fran Curran knows this type of operation well. For many years she waited tables at two of downtown Baltimore's locally famous spots -- the House of Welsh at Guilford Avenue and Saratoga Street, and the Bee Hive Restaurant in the 200 block of E. Lexington St. She also worked at 203 Davis St., a restaurant heavily patronized by judges and lawyers.

"It was time I did something on my own," she said.

Curran, who is divorced, has sunk every penny of Woolworth severance pay and company stock into her venture. She also had some advisory help from Mary Ratajczak, a Woolworth employee for nearly 39 years who helped her with setting up a financial game plan.

The job of reopening the former White Coffee Pot interior (it hadn't been used as a restaurant for some time) was not a snap. Everything in it had to be reconditioned.

"I did get a good break on buying the Woolworth stuff, but you have to remember the French-fry cooker is from 1958," said Curran, who lives on Hornel Street in Southeast Baltimore and takes the bus to work. She does not drive a car.

She enlisted help from her family. Daughters Deborah Gallagher, Nicole Cornell, Cindy Ulrich and her husband Bill, Lisa Erskine and her husband Toby all worked on getting the business off the ground. Some made telephone calls and helped getting the nTC menus printed; others painted and laid carpet.

Her dime-store experience told her to forget about French cooking and exotic menus.

"They're burger eaters around here. I soon learned that at Woolworth's. And even though people say they're on a salt-free or low-cholesterol diet, they really consume eggs too. I thought we'd never sell eggs, but we went through dozen after dozen," she said.

"I'm always amazed at the diet habits of our seniors. We had one little lady who ate her pie first to make sure she'd have enough room for it," Curran said.

Watching the arrival of Fran's Place has been a spectator sport along Eastern Avenue. People pressed their noses to the window. There were constant raps on the door. There have been inquiries from the day Woolworth's closed in mid-January.

"I've felt like a monkey in a cage," said daughter Cindy.

"I had one lady come in, sit down at the counter and expect to be served. That was three weeks ago. Now I'm finally ready for her," Curran said.

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