Originally created 01/14/02

Cafe will feature family's recipes



Tom Fagan, 65 years old and more than 50 years removed from the Telfair Street home where he grew up, has more stories about his childhood than there is time to talk about.

It's partly because when he speaks, he speaks very ... slowly.

And he pauses.

Between words.

A lot.

But mostly, it takes time because - like most of the area's residents - he has so many memories to share about Harrisburg, where he lived from ages 4 to 13.

It's the reason why, after retiring from a 23-year career in the construction business, he says he has decided to open a restaurant dedicated to the good people of the shrinking, working-class neighborhood and his fond recollections of them.

"When we were little and times were hard, if my mom had a handful of flour and some fatback, she'd put a meal on the table," Mr. Fagan said.

That work ethic and the recipes it generated will characterize the menu of his new restaurant, Harrisburg Cafe and Coffee Shop. Located at 702 Crawford Ave. in a small, stucco building that was once a florist's shop, the diner will serve breakfast and lunch and will open Jan. 21.

Biscuits and gravy, barbecue, homemade soups, pound cakes and hearty sandwiches - based on the meals his mother used to prepare for his family - are just a sampling of the featured fare.

One of the most unusual specialties will be sweet potato biscuits, which Mr. Fagan remembers eating for the first time in Harrisburg.

"Times got kind of hard, and one Halloween we were running low on groceries, but we had plenty of sweet potatoes, so (my mom) mashed them up in the dough," Mr. Fagan said. "I'm telling you - I've been sold on those things ever since."

During the 1930s and '40s, his parents and most of his neighbors walked to work each day at one of several nearby mills - including Sibley, King and Enterprise. Instead of cars, most homes had a cow and a few chickens parked in the yard.

And even though the corner stores, barber shops and ice houses that he frequented as a child are long gone, Mr. Fagan prefers to focus on the things that have stayed the same in his old haunts.

"I have such a heart for this place," he said. "The area hasn't changed that much - Platt's (Funeral Home) is still here; most of the houses are still here - it's just the same as it always was, except for some things have been torn down."

At the time his family lived on Telfair Street, World War II was under way, and neighbors relied heavily on each other when men were sent overseas to fight.

Those neighbors became sort of an extended family for Mr. Fagan - from store owners to church elders to teachers. In tribute, his menu will have sandwiches and meals named after them.

Also, the walls of the cafe will be decorated with family photos, and he's collecting memorabilia and taking current photos of the neighborhood's buildings to hang around the eating area.

"This will just be a place for people to come and sit and talk" like they used to sit and talk on the front porches of their homes, Mr. Fagan said.

Today, he lives in Trenton, S.C., and he has commuted to Harrisburg almost every day, except Sundays, since November to work on the restaurant.

Just as the whole family used to help out to put food on the table when he was growing up, Mr. Fagan said, his family - from his sisters to his children to his nieces, nephews and wife - have helped him get the restaurant ready.

Family members also will work there when the cafe opens for business.

"We all grew up here," Mr. Fagan said. "This will always be home."

"I have such a heart for this place. The area hasn't changed that much - Platt's (Funeral Home) is still here; most of the houses are still here - it's just the same as it always was, except for some things have been torn down." - Tom Fagan, on opening a restaurant in the Harrisburg area

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215.