Aug. 9, 1938 — Jan. 16, 2019
Blondine Harvin was a devoted member of True Bethel Baptist Church, but found her daily vocation among the people she welcomed into her restaurant for more than 50 years.
"Her service in church, she would say, was at Gigi's," said her younger son Darryl Harvin. "She didn't want fame, she was a very low-key person, but she worked for the Lord, and the Lord worked through her to serve the community. People from every step and walk of life came into the restaurant."
From the famous to the homeless, they enjoyed Gigi's home-cooked favorites, including macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, smothered pork chops and peach cobbler. Among those who enjoyed Ms. Harvin's home cooking were Lena Horne, Joe Louis, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hillary Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Ms. Harvin, the longtime owner of Gigi's restaurant, a beloved East Side institution devastated by a fire in 2015, died Wednesday in Buffalo General Medical Center, where she had been a patient for a few weeks. She was 80.
Darryl Harvin, who is now working to reopen Gigi's inside the Northland Workforce Training Center, said he has been overwhelmed with calls. "The calls that I have been getting have been really touching," he said. "Understanding the magnitude of the people that she touched is really hard for me, because I lived within it, but I'm really starting to see it now."
Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown called Ms. Harvin "a Buffalo icon" in a Facebook post. "While I’m deeply saddened by this loss, I’m comforted knowing her legacy will live on as her legendary soul food restaurant will soon reopen at the Northland Workforce Training Center," he wrote.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz also expressed his condolences in a statement.
"Ms. Harvin was a friend to the powerless and powerful alike, treating all her guests with dignity and compassion while serving the kind of food that was sure to bring visitors back again. As an elected official, dining at Gigi's was a rite of passage and a great way to get in touch with community leaders and constituents," Poloncarz said.
Ms. Harvin was born in Buffalo, the second daughter of Rochester and Sarah (Anthony) Davis and sister of Doris, Maxine, Marilyn, Rochester and John. Rochester Davis Sr. worked in the Donner Hanna Coke Corp. mill in Buffalo.
Ms. Harvin graduated from Fosdick-Masten Park High School and began to work in the Jefferson Avenue offices of A&P as a secretary.
Ms. Harvin's brother Rochester Davis said his sister was being considered for a promotion when their sister Marilyn, who had been working at Gigi's on Jefferson Avenue, told Ms. Harvin that the owner wished to sell it. The woman who was competing with Ms. Harvin for the A&P promotion chipped in to make the $200 or $300 purchase price, eliminating her competition.
Ena Hartman, who sold Gigi's to Ms. Harvin, went on to become a trailblazing African-American film and television actress.
"I wanted to be my own boss," Ms. Harvin told The Buffalo News in 2011. "So when I heard Gigi's was up for sale, I bought it. But I really didn't know what I was getting into. I knew nothing about owning a restaurant, and didn't think about the consequences. I was just young and foolish."
Ms. Harvin later moved Gigi's to 257 E. Ferry St. Rochester Davis, who worked for more than 30 years as a city firefighter, said that during a lean period in the 1980s, Ms. Harvin made sure that her staff was paid while she and Davis went without pay.
Gigi's was renovated in 2008 and at its grand re-opening, Mayor Brown said Ms. Harvin and her family "were always wonderful to us. We felt like we were eating at home, at mom's table."
A blaze that started as a grease fire destroyed Gigi's in November 2015. The next morning, Ms. Harvin was seen standing silently outside the ruins of her restaurant with tears in her eyes.
But that would not be the end for the legendary restaurant.
When Gigi's was selected to occupy 3,900 square feet in the Northland Workforce Training Center, Common Council President Darius Pridgen, a member of the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. board, praised the agency for choosing a local business.
Darryl Harvin said he is saddened that his mother did not live to see her beloved restaurant reopened. He said, "For me, this is about her, this is her legacy that we continue to serve the community and the people she touched and who she loved and who loved her," he said.
"She obviously wasn't going to be able to work, but I know it would have brought her much joy" to see Gigi's serving again, he said.
Rochester Davis said his sister hired several people who had fallen on hard times, helping them turn their lives around. She would also feed anyone who came in hungry, even if they couldn't pay, he said.
Besides her brother and son, Ms. Harvin is survived by another son, Alfonzo Harvin; four grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews.
A wake will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in True Bethel Baptist Church, 907 E. Ferry Street, following by a funeral service at noon.