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Founded in 1953, the Rock Inn restaurant still going strong

PALMETTO

The white sandwich board on the dusty neighborhood street is the first thing that gets your attention.

It advertises breakfast, sandwiches and dinner, but oxtails and hog maws, too.

Then there’s an appetizing aroma wafting through the screened front door.

Inside, Ophelia Bailey and Ruth Murray are sitting at a booth, fussing over a customer’s infant daughter.

Back in the kitchen their nephew, Jason Warren, is cooking up two takeout breakfast orders with bacon, eggs, grits and sausage, while joking about wanting to see Palmetto High’s state semifinal game -- if he can get out of work in time.

Welcome to the Rock Inn, 2112 Second Ave. E.

Founded by the late Pearl Isom in 1953, the family-owned restaurant is still in business.

“This is my grandmother’s legacy and we always want to keep it going,” said Warren, 47. “But I know she never would’ve thought it would still be going almost 60 years after they opened it.”

“We’re still here,” said Bailey, 75. “Somebody had to be doing some- thing right for it to be here this long.”

Charles “Treetop” Heaven knows what it is.

He patronized the Rock Inn as a teenager, back when it had a jukebox and dances from whence came its name.

“It’s the home cooking and it caters to the neighborhood,” said the 58-year-old landscaper. “It really is amazing the place has lasted this long, but I’m glad.”

So is Chevelle Phelps.

The Sarasota resident grew up in the neighborhood and dropped by the Rock Inn with her young son, Victor III.

“I can remember coming here since I was a little girl,” said Phillips, 27. “It’s good food, a great place and it’s got a real family feel to it. Almost like walking into your own home.”

Feels like home, indeed.

Pretty lace curtains decorate the windows.

Framed flower art graces the walls.

There are framed photos of family members, too.

One is a portrait of Pearl Isom, the Rock Inn matriarch.

“We were working out on the farms and Mom wanted her own business,” said Murray, 77.

Not just any business, but a soul food restaurant.

“When my mother built it there weren’t a whole lot of places in the neighborhood,” Bailey said.

“She cooked and we helped. The menu had all kinds of soul food -- greens, chitlins, hog maws, baked fish, baked chicken, pork chops, ham, rice, mashed potatoes and cornbread.

“We’d open up at 7 a.m. and it’d be 8 or 9 at night before we got out of here. We’d go all day long, but we had people come all the way from Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota. It was a good feeling.”

Henry Lawrence remembers those days.

Pearl Isom was his grandmother and his late mother, Geneva, had a hand in running the Rock Inn for awhile.

The photos of the former Oakland Raider tackle at the restaurant are a far cry from his humble beginnings as a young field hand.

“They’d feed the work crews at the Rock Inn before they went into the fields and the workers paid up after they got back each day,” said Lawrence, 60. “I did that from when I was a boy until I was a sophomore in college.

“I also slip into the kitchen to eat bread pudding. My grandmother got tired of that so she made me my own batch.”

The place tugs at people, all right.

That goes especially for Warren, a Bethune-Cook- man College grad who worked in management for two major retailers until his mother, Bernice Isom, beckoned.

“If you’d told me I’d be doing this, I’d have told you you’re crazy,” he said.

“But Mom needed somebody to help her run the place. I said I’ll come down and give you a hand. Lo’ and behold, she’s gone and I’m still here 7-8 years later. What happened? It just goes by so fast. It’s a good place. it really is.

“When I first came in here, I didn’t know cooking at all. It was wash the dishes, wipe off the tables. Then each one of the family taught me something. I’ve really learned a lot.

“This place is like a pillar in the community.”

“People grew up around here, they don’t forget us,” Murray said.

Count Brandi Freeman’s family among them.

She waited for a takeout breakfast while holding her baby girl, Mauriya.

“My grandparents came here. My parents came here. I’m just following their footsteps,” said Freeman, 29.

“I’ll probably come back for lunch, too.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.

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