Meet the woman behind a beloved Ocala restaurant who united people from all walks of life with her good old southern cooking and deep love of the community.
Marion County has had its fair share of historic eateries, but one is remembered with such affection that it has generated hundreds of recollections on the Facebook message board “You know you are from Ocala when…” more than 25 years after it closed its doors.
From 1945 to 1997, Miss Pearl’s Soul Food Café was an institution in Ocala and Sallie “Pearl” Fambro Berry Jackson was the heart of it.
The restaurant occupied two different locations over the years, both on Broadway Street. The first was up a narrow old staircase, above Hampton Hall, Ocala’s only Black dance hall. After 14 years at that location, it moved to its final home behind a creaky screen door at 223 West Broadway Street. The fact that it felt like “home” to so many may have been key to her success—that and “The best lip smackin’ soul food,” according to Marcy Maxwell Ha.
The small café had an open kitchen and Miss Pearl would be “cooking up a storm” over a four-burner stove covered in well-worn pots and cast-iron pans. There was no air conditioning, but that didn’t stop folks, from all walks of life, from clamoring in to get a place one of the seven small tables or the counter, sometimes waiting in line to get a place.
She served everyone from legendary singer-songwriter B.B. King to hungry farm workers with the same “fill your belly” Southern hospitality and delicious hot home cooked meals.
“Everybody was there: plumbers, lawyers, mechanics, judges…” Barry Bledsoe recalled.
“Blue collar, white collar, everyone was welcome,” Dan Sommer added.
There was no set menu. Whatever Pearl decided to make that day was what was on offer and Pearl or her daughter Betty Mae Wright (her only child) would recite the day’s offerings.
“Loved how she sang the menu to you,” Dianne Leslie-Mason shared in a Facebook post.
“Sallie hollered the menu,” Brenda Flynn countered. “But her voice was sing-song.”
Gayle Drake recalls that Pearl would start with, “I’s got some…” , before listing the items. “Then the finale… Do you want cornbread or a biscuit?”
“Ready to eat? Those words were music to my ears,” SueAnn Forman recalls Pearl beckoning. “Makes me hungry just thinking about it.”
The particular “notes” of that music involved some combination of her famous fried chicken, “finger-lickin’ good” ribs, smothered pork chops, beef stew, meatloaf, and a variety of vegetables including collard greens, candied yams and black-eyed peas.
For one price, diners could choose one meat, three vegetables, a drink and either cornbread or a biscuit. The price of a lunch plate in 1997 was $5 if you ate in. A take-out order was a quarter more.
“I use the same size plate as I did 52 years ago when I started and I charged 75 cents for a plate then,” she told the Ocala Star-Banner (OSB) at the time.
Charles Stanley Bice-Bey III of Gainesville, Georgia is Betty’s grandson and Pearl’s great grandson. He has had an accomplished career that has included military service and work for NASA and says he “grew up in the restaurant” and recalls how they would send him out to sweep the stoop when he was 3 or 4 years old and then he could get a treat at Woolworth’s down the street. He marveled at Pearl’s ability to create her signature dishes without recipes, but still be so consistent each and every time. But what he most admired about her was her kind nature and her dedication to the community. “She was wonderful,” he offers. “I learned so much from her. She taught me the importance of really listening to people and that has served me all my life.”
“She was probably the best listener that I have ever known. Her life was a life of speaking blessings on people,” former Marion County Commissioner Randy Harris told the OSB in 2003. “She spoke blessings on every soul that walked in that door. She would sit with you at the table and pray with you if that’s what you need.”
Perhaps Betty described it best in an interview in the OSB, “All she was concerned about was feeding the people … and if need be, feeding their soul.”
In 1997, Miss Pearl decided to hang up her apron for good. Of her plans to close, she told the OSB, “I’m almost 83. Don’t you think it’s about time?”
She passed away on New Year’s Eve of 2003, at age 88. Betty, who died in 2018 in Tucson, Arizona, had three children of her own, so Pearl has many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren living in various locations around the country—descendants who know how Pearl nourished the bodies and souls of so many and blazed a path through her passion and entrepreneurial spirit.
When asked about her success, Pearl shared her philosophy, “Don’t make money,” she offered. “Just love what you’re doing. I’ve gotten along with everyone and I’ve enjoyed every minute here. I never got rich, but I loved it.” OS