Groovey Grill

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[Groovey Grill Mansion – AfricanViolet on 43Places.com]

In 1998, the Greater Houston Preservation alliance awarded Walter E. Strickland, owner of Distinctive Dwellings Inc., a “Good Brick Award” for the renovation of a stately mansion located at 2619 Calumet, in the Third Ward. The mansion is known as the “Groovey Grill Mansion” because it housed the Groovey Grill restaurant between 1967-1989. (It is now an events facility.) The Groovey Grill, which opened for business in another location, in 1942, was a long-standing institution in the African-American community, as is evident from the following articles on the restaurant:

Gina Seay, “Dishing up more than home cooking at the Groovey Grill”, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7, 1987:

SINCE ITS humble snack bar beginnings in 1942, the Third Ward’s Groovey Grill has been more than just a comfortable spot to eat home cooking, and its owners, Faurice and Jessie Prince, have been more than just successful entrepreneurs.

One longtime patron declares it an “institution, no question about it.”

Before integration, faithful customers say the grill was the only nice eatery where Houston’s blacks could dine and mingle. Through the years it has remained a favorite gathering place for the community, thanks to the fried chicken and the owners’ hospitality.

“The Princes always represented something special,” said attorney Andrew Jefferson, who has been a frequent customer since his college days.

A group of those longtime fans and area business owners will host a banquet honoring the Princes’ 45 years in business Sept. 17 at Texas Southern University’s Student Life Center.

They’ve always worked as a team – with Jessie supervising the cooks and waitresses and ordering supplies while Faurice sits behind the register greeting customers.

The restaurant has been located at 2619 Calumet since 1967. It’s a stately-looking two-story house that’s hard to miss with towering purple columns at the entrance. Although the first floor was renovated to function as a restaurant, part of its charm is that much of the interior still looks and feels like home.

The decor isn’t fancy. Walls in the foyer are covered with plaques, photos of political heroes, certificates for community service and a mention from the mayor’s office commemorating the Princes’ 43rd wedding anniversary in 1980.

The back barroom, which once was the scene of frequent cocktail parties, has shelves of black and white autographed pictures of sports greats who have dined there through the years.

A few of the visitors have been former President Lyndon B. Johnson, boxing champion Muhammad Ali and baseball greats Willie Mays and Roy Campanella.

Asked to recall the names of the rich and famous who have passed through her doors, Jessie just throws her head back and says, “Oh, honey… ‘

She points to a table in the corner and says, “Ray Charles sat right over there two months ago.”

Jessie will proudly tell you this venture was her idea from the start. “He (Faurice) wasn’t too interested in it, but once the money was coming in, he got real interested,” she laughed.

“You really want to know how we got started?” she asked. “Across from the Forward Times, there was a dairy cup where blacks had to go to the back to get an ice cream cone.

“I said to myself one of these days I’m going to have a ice cream parlor so I won’t have to go to the back.”

So she opened Princes’ Hamburger Bar on Elgin Street, then catering to students attending nearby Jack Yates High School.

Faurice had a steady job at an oil refinery so he wasn’t too excited about sinking money into a burger joint.

But it proved a hit.

In 1947, they opened a larger restaurant at Tierwester and Wheeler Avenue. This location was the first to be called Groovey Grill. Jessie says she is often asked how the name was chosen. Her response: “I laid awake and thought about it.”

The land for this new restaurant was acquired from a friend who had borrowed $900 from them. As payment he gave the couple the deed to the lot.

In those days, Faurice says, he called the area Frog Alley because of the many unpaved streets that flooded constantly. Jessie says two years passed before her husband would visit the property.

But when construction on the newly established Texas Southern University began, the Princes realized they had a potential gold mine.

Students and faculty began arriving, and Jessie said, “That’s when it really started swinging.”

“Meet me at the Groovey Grill” was the slogan around the community, she says.

Dr. Jesse Gloster, a retired TSU economics professor who is organizing the tribute for the Princes, said, “You had to break through a mob to get in.”

The Princes worked to improve the entire area to protect their business investment. Jessie marched to the mayor’s office one day to solicit help to pave the streets. They once sold a family car for $450 to pay for street repairs, she says.

Their favorite cause quickly became TSU and the students. The Princes never had children, but they helped more than 300 students get through school by giving them jobs, offering an occasional free meal to those down and out and contributing to scholarship funds.

Faurice spent many evenings soliciting donations for the United Negro College Fund.

And the two were big fans of the school’s athletic teams, often preparing dinners for them when they arrived home from road games. Jessie says she remembers a tearful fan calling them once because the football team didn’t have uniforms to travel in. The couple gave them $600.

Jessie says almost every fraternity and sorority on campus has gathered in their meeting rooms.

“They were just like mom and pop,” said Daisy Hanna Proctor, a former TSU graduate student.

The university’s head golf coach and a 1955 football recruit, William Glosson, said, “Their food sold me on the university. I had my first meal there.

“It was super, everybody gathered there, it was like a family reunion,” he said.

Glosson recalled that students would say: “Mr. Prince, can I get a steak sandwich? I’ll pay you later.”

Glosson added, “He never wrote an IOU down; you just always felt you wanted to pay him back.”

City Councilman Rodney Ellis, who first met the Princes when he was a TSU sophomore in 1973, says they often fed him when he dropped by to collect money for the football tickets they sold to customers. He jokingly says they are responsible for some of the extra pounds he’s gained over the years.

“A lot of people who’ve achieved some measure of success, from Barbara Jordan to young campus leaders, were touched by them,” Ellis said.

Today’s breakfast, lunch and dinner crowds are smaller. Around 3 p.m. Faurice takes a seat behind the register, puffs on a cigar and watches an afternoon movie on a small portable television set.

Jessie sits at the counter eating a late lunch or goes back to the kitchen to talk with her cooks, Emma Phillips, who has been there 30 years, and Laura George, a 19-year veteran.

Waitress Lorraine Williams, who has been a favorite of customers for 38 years, also is still around.

The Princes, who will only say they are “50-plus” years old, aren’t sure how much longer they will hang on to the business. Jessie says she is ready to consider any good bids.

Faurice says modestly that they’ve survived this long by “just hanging on.”

Jessie adds, “The people like us; they just like the Groovey Grill.”

Rebecca Deaton, “Groovey Grill”, Houston Chronicle, June 18, 1992:

WHEN Faurice and Jessie Prince started their business at the height of segregation in 1942, success didn’t enter into the equation.

They just wanted to give members of their community a place where they could eat without feeling threatened or intimidated.

“There were very few restaurants in Houston at that time that catered to blacks,” Faurice Prince said. “We opened it up so our people would have a place to go.”

The Princes, now 85, made the Groovey Grill a Third Ward landmark by dishing up a combination of mouth-watering soul food and tender, loving care. But they made their business an institution by putting much of what they earned back into the community they served.

The couple lived by the credo they had printed on an early promotional flier. The handbill, once pasted on telephone poles throughout the community, read: “We don’t count the money as much as we count the friendship.”

Decades later, the Groovey’s 10-inch-thick walls are still solid, but the paint is peeling off the columns out front, and the tables and chairs that filled the first floor have long been sold.

The sounds of laughter and the smell of yams and chicken-fried steak have disappeared. Despite expectations raised by last year’s purchase of the building by the Black United Fund of Texas, hopes that the Grill can survive as a landmark also may have faded.

For the second time since 1989 when the Princes were forced to retire because of ill health, the Groovey is for sale and in the hands of the Small Business Administration. When SBA put the property up for auction last year, BUFT, a non-profit organization that supports community-based projects, purchased it for $240,000. BUFT President Cleo Glen Johnson said her organization wanted to convert the building into a community center and museum to honor the Princes.

But the deal fell through when a laboratory analysis commissioned by BUFT revealed the presence of asbestos. SBA authorities, who were not aware of the asbestos problem, rejected BUFT’s subsequent offer of $90,000 for the house and put the property back on the market in February.

Although the property was purchased “as is,” the SBA agreed to rescind the deal. SBA gave BUFT’s down payment back, and is considering all offers for the property. “There weren’t major problems, but we did not want to have a non-profit organization suffer any damage, and we thought we would be a good citizen by taking it back,” SBA Director Milton Wilson said.

Johnson remains disappointed that BUFT couldn’t work something out with the SBA.

“It’s hard to describe what the Groovey meant to this community,” Johnson said. “Everyone was able to come, and Mr. and Mrs. Prince made them feel special.”

Johnson, who describes the property as one of the area’s historical institutions, raised almost $50,000 toward purchasing it from a variety of contributors. More than $15,000 of the total came from individuals who had fond memories of what the Groovey was like in its heyday, Johnson said.

“We wanted to save it because so much of our history has been torn down and covered in concrete,” she said.

With almost half a century in the restaurant business, the Princes have earned their place in Third Ward history.

The native Texans met while attending college at Prairie View A&M, married and moved to Houston in 1932.

Their first restaurant was a hamburger stand on Elgin, where Jessie did the cooking. Business was so good that they moved to a larger location at the corner of Tierwester and Wheeler Avenue in 1947.

The couple called this restaurant the Groovey Grill and began to hire staff that would stay with them for the duration. Lorraine Williams waited tables at the Groovey for 39 years, Emma Phillips cooked for 31 years.

The first Groovey’s proximity to Texas Southern University gave the couple a ringside seat to observe the university’s growth and provided them with countless customers.

“At that time, TSU had just one building,” Faurice Prince said. “The GIs who were returning from the war all had to sleep in camping trailers while they were going to school.”

When their business became successful beyond their wildest dreams, the Princes returned the favor. The childless couple helped more than 300 TSU students get their degrees by giving them food, putting them to work or paying their tuition.

The Groovey became the place where people gathered to see and be seen.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, who graduated from TSU in 1975, said the restaurant was a source of inspiration and nourishment to many students.

“When I was a student, it was common to go in and see the likes of Barbara Jordan or Mickey Leland,” Ellis said. “Any time a major entertainer came into town, the Groovey Grill was one of the places on the circuit.”

The Princes still recall the day when the Rev. Jessie Jackson came in for lunch and the evening when then-heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali dropped by for dinner.

By 1967, the Princes were looking for a larger building. When they found the property at 2619 Calumet, they knew it was the perfect match. With more than 6,000 square feet of floor space on an acre of land, the aging mansion could accommodate their burgeoning clientele.

After a little remodeling, the move was complete, and the Groovey’s success became legendary. The restaurant’s popularity spread throughout Texas during the 1970s, when the couple added former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to their list of customers.

The restaurant’s popularity continued into the next decade when the Princes were honored for their contribution to the community by a group of former TSU students and longtime customers.

But after almost half a century in business, the Princes were tired, their health failing.

For a while, they tried to keep the restaurant open by leasing it out and maintaining their residence upstairs. When the arrangement didn’t work out as well as they had hoped, they put the building up for sale.

After the house had been on the market for a couple of years, the couple deeded it to the Small Business Administration, an arrangement that allows them to stay on the property and gives them a little income for essentials.

Once the building is sold, the Princes have plans to move to a smaller house that was left to them by a relative. But the house needs extensive repairs, which takes money that the couple doesn’t have.

“We really don’t have the money to fix it up,” he said. “All our savings are gone because the bills are so high on this property and we’re on a fixed income.”

All the Princes have left now are their memories.

Faurice Prince points with his cane at the photograph of baseball Hall-of-Famer Hank Aaron, who was there on opening night in 1967. And he recalls that there was always a table of politicians at the Groovey, talking shop or just enjoying the food.

“Everyone who went to Austin and Washington came through here,” Faurice Prince said. “But we never hear from them any more.”

Jessie Prince, who doesn’t get out much any more because of circulation problems, complains that old customers and employees avoid talking about the Groovey.

“They say that’s past, and they don’t want to talk about the past,” she said. “Times have changed and things are not like they used to be.”

Faurice Prince recalls that he was recently threatened when he tried to discourage a youngster from pulling green pecans off one of the trees out front.

“He threatened that he would go home, get his gun and shoot me,” he said. “So I told him just to go ahead and take all the pecans he wanted.”

Although they now feel like outsiders in a community they once were such a part of, Faurice Prince said they will remain in the property until it is sold.

“We were very successful in the business until we tried to get someone to take it over,” he said. “That’s when the people let us down.”

2 responses to “Groovey Grill

  1. It’s too bad that Walter Strickland is a scofflaw (and a lawyer!) who has been delinquent in his property taxes for many, many years.

  2. hey what percentage of the taxes you are paying?

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