Restauranteurs Johnny and Martha Borrayo took ownership of the “Famous Door” café building on Barnett Street in June last year, and are working to restore the historic building into a “soul café” and reopen for business in its old neighborhood on Barnett Street.
Kerrville City Council voted this September to give Borrayo the variance he needed to operate the business in a residential neighborhood. And several of his “neighbors” sent glowing letters of support for his efforts.
“We’re planning a ‘Soul Food Café’ with home cooking, to keep with the history and character of the area. The Famous Door closed in 1996. The age of the building is uncertain, but we think it was built in the early 1900s,” he said. “The first records we can find date from 1929.”
The Famous Door was owned and run by “Big Daddy Bratcher” in its early years.
“It’s been vacant for too long and seen too much history. We had to save it,” he said. “We’re going to decorate it inside with old black and white photos.”
They have been making repairs to the building, and say they will use a floor plan similar to the original layout.
One smaller room on the east wall will retain its door to the front sidewalk, and become a site for picking up to-go orders and buying drinks from an old soda fountain.
The old refrigerator they found in the building will be refurbished as storage for drinks they will sell.
He’s putting not only new doors but new screen doors on the main front entrance, as it used to have.
They are putting the stage back in its original location in the center of the south wall. Borrayo said they plan to have live Gospel music on stage Sundays during brunch.
“We found lots of old bottles under the floor, with stickers from businesses in the original area, when we checked under there,” he said.
The couple also bought the two neighboring houses for added space. The one on the east (dating from about 1900) was torn down for a parking lot entry lane. Borrayo said they salvaged as much old wood as they could out of it, and found the same deeply set, sturdy, original cedar posts under it, as they found under the restaurant.
“The old wood weighs about three times as much as the new wood,” he said.
And they bought “Big Mama’s” house on the west, and are renovating that into a community center.
Borrayo said he will be adding a new kitchen on that side of the restaurant; and a separate “party room” customers can rent for private parties.
Overall, they are working on designing 2,500 square feet of public space and about 40 parking spaces for patrons.
“We’ve been rezoned, so we’re moving forward. Our plans have to be approved by the city next. Then three to four months after that we should be ready to open, around the first part of 2019.”
Cleanup and restoration
Borrayo said in one old cabinet in the building, Bratcher’s descendants found a closed partial bottle of liquor in a hidden compartment.
There were other “finds” inside the vacant building, when the Borrayos started to gut the structure to its original floors, stage, outside walls and roof.
Those included an old entertainment poster for the Franklin Brothers; a military trunk stenciled with a Lt. Edward Bratcher’s name and assignment destination; an antique Remington adding machine; the old bar and most of its stools; and the frame of the former serving window from the kitchen in a partial wall.
They also found the 1930’s model two-door freezer still hooked up inside the back wall of the old kitchen area; and it turned on and ran for a little while, when they tried it.
“We had to take down a really old oak tree just outside the east wall. It was huge; and we worked hard to take it down carefully because we’re going to use the wood to make new tables for the café.”
He said he plans to have the original floors refinished, and leave the stage area as space for future musical presentations. “I’ve been told the dancers would do the ‘James Brown’ on the dance floor here.”
The roof still had many cypress shingles that appeared to be in good condition.
He cleared a couple old houses off the back of the property to provide a parking lot off the street.
Borrayo and his wife are currently owners of the Rio Ranch restaurant in Ingram and the Longhorn Café in Harper.
Since they acquired the Famous Door, they created a Facebook page about their project; and have posted a 3-D video on their Facebook page as a “tour” showing their plans.
“Everyone in this community is ecstatic about getting the restaurant back,” Borrayo said. “In its lifetime, it’s been a grocery store, a barber shop, a ‘juke joint’ and a café.”
From the front, the building held a café and bar on the right, the dance floor and stage in the center, and a former barbershop on the left.
Another good sign for the Borrayos is that they fixed the old Famous Door neon sign hanging outside over the sidewalk, and it will again light up part of that block like it used to.
In 2012, the Famous Door, got an official historical marker from the State of Texas. It reads:
“The Famous Door served the African-American community in Kerrville for 70 years as a café, grocery store, and, most prominently, as a dance hall. Henry Kelley established his café and grocery in the 1920s, at a time when Jim Crow laws segregated and restricted all aspects of life. The café became an important part of the African-American community, hosting a 1938 dance for Emancipation Day and a 1942 dance to celebrate President Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday and benefit the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later the March of Dimes). Edward Bratcher Sr., a prominent African American chef at the Bluebonnet Hotel, became manager and changed the name to Bratcher’s Place. In 1944, property owner A.L. Lewis sold Bratcher and his wife Cordelia Mills Bratcher the restaurant and other adjacent property.
“With segregation excluding African Americans from music venues, entrepreneurs created an alternative known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. Tour stops hosted local performers and nationally known jazz, rock and rhythm and blues musicians. During this time, the restaurant began hosting musical acts and changed its name to the Famous Door Café, advertising as being “famous for friends, food and fun.” As new musical trends developed, the Famous Door integrated its lineup, including groups from Kerrville and San Antonio often credited as early developers of psychedelic rock in the 1960s. Patrons later recalled the Famous Door as the first integrated business in Kerrville that welcomed all customers before it closed in 1996. Music provided a common language that helped bridge cultural and generational gaps.”
The former café was the site of presentations by Bratcher descendants at bi-annual Doyle School Exes reunions, a night spot many of them recall from their younger years in Kerrville.