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Fire ravages GiGi’s, socio-political hub of Buffalo’s black community

Gigi’s Restaurant usually is jammed for breakfast on Saturday mornings, with patrons waiting for tables, the kitchen churning out home-cooked soul food and people talking about the latest news and gossip.

But this Saturday, it seemed more like a funeral, after a predawn fire destroyed much of the restaurant’s interior. The popular restaurant on East Ferry Street was boarded up and closed, and patrons expecting to sit down for a hot meal were turned away. Many reacted in disbelief. Restaurant workers milled around as fire investigators went inside, searching for a cause.

“Not Gigi’s,” said one woman, when told of the restaurant fire.

Blondine Harvin, who opened the restaurant in 1960, stood outside in near silence, mourning the loss and fighting back tears. However, she said she is committed to reopening.

“We’ve fed a lot of people since 1960,” said Harvin, 77. “Right at this minute, I have no feelings whatsoever. I’m just like numb. I haven’t slept.” Damage to the restaurant, which she remodeled in 2009, was estimated at $150,000, according to Buffalo fire marshals.

Though restaurant workers originally thought the blaze was sparked by a grease fire, the cause remained under investigation as a team of fire marshals remained on the scene into early Saturday afternoon. Investigators were scheduled to return to the restaurant at 257 E. Ferry on Sunday.

For the first time in 33 years, Bobby Perry is out of a job. That’s how long he has worked at Gigi’s, cooking, busing tables, whatever it took. Perry, who lives behind the restaurant, reported the fire after smelling smoke.

“I was sitting watching TV, and I smelled a funny smell, so I stepped out on the porch, and I saw smoke coming out from the side of the building. And then I saw flames coming from the vent,” he said, pointing to the kitchen area.

“I called four times,” Perry said. “I had to go back inside because the smoke was so thick. My eyes were burning. I kept on coming back outside. The police were here before the first fire engine.”

Harvin has devoted most of her 77 years to Gigi’s.

“Work keeps me young,” she said. “Work keeps me moving. I’m up at 4:30 every morning. I don’t get home until 6:30 or 7.”

The fire will be a loss for more than just Harvin, though. Gigi’s has a strong following from the neighborhood and many others throughout the Buffalo community,

Debbera Ransom, founding commander of AMVETS Post 24, stopped by the restaurant to show her support.

“I’d like to see all of our community forces come together,” Ransom said. “It would be a shame if we all can’t come together for someone who provided a service to the community for all these years. I’m actually putting a shout-out to all our veterans, all our unions that have skilled labor to come and do some volunteerism to bring this landmark back.”

Bruce Betton, 49, grew up having breakfast at Gigi’s.

“That’s what I was just going to get now – the scrambled eggs, the cheese, the bacon, you know. People come into town and ask where the good soul restaurant is. It’s either Mattie’s on Fillmore or Gigi’s,” Betton said. “I liked talking to the girls, they’ve been working there for years. It served a lot of people from generation to generation. It’s terrible for everybody.”

Mattie’s owner, George A. Holt Jr., described the fire as “just a sad moment.”

“I hope it’s temporary,” he said of the shutdown.

Longtime friends of Harvin and many of Gigi’s employees, Holt and his co-owner wife Mattie, for whom his restaurant is named, reached out to Harvin on Saturday morning to see if they could be of assistance.

“Any way we can extend some support, we will,” Holt said. “We’ll wait until things settle down and then see if we possibly can help them with staff members who might need a job, and we might consider extending some odd hours once we get things organized.”

In the end, the community will work through this, he said.

“It’s so important for the constituents we serve,” Holt said.

Meanwhile, Common Council President Darius Pridgen has set up a GoFundMe page to help Gigi’s rebuild. The page is titled Gigi’s Fire Help. As of 9 p.m. Saturday, $2,050 had been raised, Pridgen said. That’s in addition to people who gave $400 in cash and check donations to Pridgen when he visited the site earlier Saturday.

On top of the fundraising, True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry will provide breakfast and lunch fare on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from its Bread of Heaven free food truck to people in the neighborhood who depended on Gigi’s. Any donations from the three days will go directly to the GoFundMe site.

“Gigi’s for Buffalo is more than a restaurant,” said Pridgen, who has been pastor of True Bethel for the past 21 years.

“It is an institution in that Gigi’s brings together people from all sides of town, all colors and ages into one establishment that reflects the unity of the City of Buffalo.”

News Staff Reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this report. email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com