The Way We Were: Norman Abraham

The Way We Were: Norman Abraham
Norman and Carol Abraham with their grandchildren Garrett, Preston and Bella

He has fed mayors, council members, judges, salesmen, construction workers, doctors, hospital workers, bankers, firefighters, policemen, and retirees. When invited to speak at Rotary meetings about his business experience, it’s rarely possible to find a room with a single person who has not been a patron of at least one of his eateries. He is Norman Abraham, Jacksonville’s beloved restaurateur.

But it’s not only for his food business finesse that Abraham’s name is known around town. As one of a long line of familial Robert E. Lee High School grads, Abraham is now a key member of a popular political committee of people who are opposed to the idea of changing their alma mater’s name. The Abraham lineage there began with his dad who was a member of Lee’s first graduating class in 1928. His uncles, siblings, wife, and children are all graduates of Lee as well. “We are a family of Robert E. Lee. That’s part of our history,” he said. And he is proud of it.

Norman Abraham 1944
Norman Abraham 1944

Born in Brooklyn in 1941, at five, Abraham moved to Southside where his father, Emmett, had built a home. He started school at Hendricks Avenue Elementary, but by the third grade, his mom, Victoria, had become quite ill. So, the house was sold, and the family moved to Plum Street in Riverside where Abraham put down roots at West Riverside Elementary before advancing on to John Gorrie Junior High.

Abraham has fond childhood memories of his time in Riverside. “I had a bicycle I rode everywhere,” he said, noting that his bike was a blue Western Flyer. With the cuff of his right pant leg secured with a rubber band to avoid being caught in the chain with its missing guard, he traveled all over town on his two-wheeler. 

“I was a park rat. I loved to play baseball, football, and basketball. Soccer wasn’t big back then,” Abraham said, adding he’d peddle to the park almost every afternoon from West Riverside and stay to play ball until 6 p.m. From there, he’d travel to Abraham’s Grocery Store, which his dad owned. Located on Jefferson Street, right off State Street, it was nearly three miles away from Riverside Park. “That’s where I learned my work ethic,” Abraham said. He’d work there for an hour or two and then his father would pack the blue bike in the back of the car, and both would head home for supper.

Back then, park directors would schedule ball games, ping pong tournaments, and keep the kids generally busy from the time they got to the park until the time they left. “We would even travel to different locations in the city to play ball,” Abraham said. This was a time when the Jacksonville Journal and the Florida Times Union, the two Jacksonville daily newspapers, would contain articles on every park, every player, and every game, including scores. “We didn’t have Little League back then. We had parks,” he said. 

Norman Abraham at John Gorrie Junior High 1956
Norman Abraham at John Gorrie Junior High 1956

In addition to biking and ball, Abraham also enjoyed movies as a boy. Locally, he’d attend either the Edgewood or Murray Hill Theatre. On a Saturday morning, he might take the bus downtown with his younger sisters, Kathy and Terri, to attend either the Florida, the Palace, or the Arcade Theatre. The bouncing ball sing-a-longs on the screen prior to the main feature were a fun addition. Newsreels of world events were shown, too.

During his childhood days, most families didn’t have more than one car, so taking a bus was a usual occurrence. “That and my bicycle were my transportation,” he said. Although his father was well-known as a Jacksonville grocer, perhaps his mother, Victoria Abraham, was even more well known as a saleslady at Nancy Scott, a women’s apparel shop in the Roosevelt Mall.

After graduating from Lee High School in 1959, Abraham joined the Army for active duty from March until September in 1962. “That’s when I matured, going into the Army,” he said. Just two months later, in November, he married before entering the Army Reserve for another five-and-a-half years.

Norman Abraham - Army 1961
Norman Abraham – Army 1961

Abraham’s wife, Carol Griswold Abraham, is also a native of Jacksonville. Raised in Avondale in a home behind Fishweir Elementary, she met Abraham at Lee when he was a junior and she was a sophomore. After their first date, “I think she dropped me for another person,” Abraham admitted. He went away to Lees–McRae College in North Carolina, and when he returned to Jacksonville, he and Griswold dated again while he was attending Jacksonville University. “It’s a good love story. It’s all been good. It’s give-and-take; it’s not one-sided,” he said.

Abraham treasures the days he spent at Robert E. Lee High, and he was devastated when his close high school friend, Ken Kelley, was killed in a helicopter crash while flying for the Air Force. There’s now an honors program in Kelley’s name at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he graduated from in 1963, and a scholarship fund at Yale Law School in Connecticut, where he had graduated from in 1966 before entering voluntary active service in Vietnam. Abraham said he holds Kelley in his heart to this day. 

The Abrahams raised two children, Jay and Joy, in a house they had purchased on Herschel Street. The family attended Christian Family Chapel in Mandarin, and the children attended Fishweir Elementary, their mom’s alma mater.

Abraham was 21 when he started in business for himself. This was prior to his marriage while he was living in his family home on McDuff Avenue in Riverside, just eight blocks away from Lee High. It was the house his dad had bought after they moved from the Plum Street rental. He had a neighbor, John McDonald, who was in the printing business. McDonald had a wedding invitation book and was willing to pay Abraham commission on orders. So, Abraham set up a desk in his mother’s living room and got to work. He made phone calls to the parents of the young women he saw photographed in the local paper announcing their engagements. Abraham was so successful at selling the printed wedding invitations that he acquired his own books and started selling wedding invitations on his own. That expanded into brokering printing projects, for business cards and such. He had a knack for customer service and for being his own boss.

Through a CPA friend, Abraham’s dealings in the printing business led to a venture in pegboard accounting, a manual bookkeeping system designed in the 50s. Abraham worked with National Business Systems, a company that manufactured and sold pegboards. His role as distributor in North Florida lasted until ADP computerized processing squeezed out most of his market. 

In 1976, Abraham got his start in the restaurant business, a career that would span decades and lead to ownership of a lengthy list of well-known Jacksonville eateries. It began with his older brother Raymond who owned The Rib Shack, a barbeque restaurant on Baymeadows Road. Raymond’s partner wanted out, so Norman came in—his very first restaurant!

In 1980, the Abraham brothers sold The Rib Shack. Six months later, that buyer wanted to sell, so Norman bought back the restaurant at a very reduced price as sole proprietor without his brother. 

A year later, Abraham opened Rib Shack II on Blanding Boulevard across from Cedar Hills Shopping Center. That made for two restaurants under Abraham’s belt.

A third came in 1986—Tad’s Restaurant on Park Street. Tom A. Davis originally opened Tad’s in 1951 as a drive-in. While in high school, Abraham would frequent the place for hamburgers, fries, and barbeque, never imagining that he would someday own it. He was able to hire the best short order cook in Jacksonville, Enos “Whitey” White, who eventually became a partner. “I was blessed with a fantastic staff that loved working and taking care of our customers. Brooklyn, as the Jacksonville neighborhood is known today, was a business district. So, we served only breakfast and lunch, no nights, no weekends. A Utopia for restaurant employees,” Abraham pointed out. Tad’s quickly became known as the place to “meet and eat.”

Abraham trained his son in the restaurant business the same way his dad had trained him at the grocery store decades before. “I believe in preparing your children for life. Nothing was ever given to me. I worked for everything that I have,” Abraham said. He admitted to having help along the way from many good people. And he did not hesitate to help others in return. As an owner of many restaurants, Abraham took the unusual step in 1990 of becoming an employee of one. A customer of his from Tad’s, Bob Malkani, had purchased a Sonny’s BBQ corporate franchise in Gainesville and needed help running it. “I was eager to apply my skills,” Abraham said. For a year-and-a-half, he stayed there for work Monday through Friday as Director of Operations and returned to his family in Jacksonville on the weekends. Abraham’s wife, Carol, and Whitey ran Tad’s while he was away. Malkani would have been happy to have Abraham move to Gainesville full-time and continue helping, but, at that time, Abraham had a daughter in high school and a father 83 years old who needed some looking after, so he had to leave Sonny’s.

Not long after his permanent return to Jacksonville, Abraham opened The Thompson House Restaurant on Hendricks Avenue in 1992, for a total of four establishments. In 1993 came Player’s Café in the Ponte Vedra/Sawgrass area. In 1996, Tad’s moved from Park Street to Lane Avenue. And so on, a series of buying, selling, and holding restaurants continued for Abraham, sometimes alone and sometimes with a partner. 

“You never know what impact you may have on a teenage employee,” Abraham said and then told a story from 1994 about an offer he received from a former Rib Shack employee named Chris who wanted to open a sandwich shop with his brother. The boys respected Abraham’s acumen and wanted Abraham to partner with them. He declined. Today that sandwich shop is Chris and Rob Sorrenson’s Firehouse Subs. They now have 1160 locations in 46 states. “See how smart I am!” Abraham joked.

By 2006, Abraham had been out of the restaurant business for a while. He had sold any establishments he still owned, he wasn’t working, and he wasn’t looking for any additional ventures. He considered himself retired, or so he thought. That year, a new, fast-growing food franchise came to Jacksonville. Abraham helped open Zaxby’s on Roosevelt Boulevard next to the Naval Air Station and worked there for three years. “I did the hiring, training, made deposits, and did the ordering,” he said. And he still wasn’t through.

In 2009, a former Tad’s customer, Walter Ware, called Abraham, and he was back in business again with the birth of Two Doors Down on Park Street. “It was quickly a hit and loved by all,” Abraham said. Sadly, Ware passed away a few years afterwards. “He was like a second father to me as was Harry Frisch of Beaver Street Fisheries and Sea Best Foods,” Abraham said. Every day, Abraham reserved a booth for Frisch. In 2016, when Abraham closed Two Doors Down, he sent that special booth to Frisch’s offices where it sits today in the cafeteria with a sign that says Two Doors Down Restaurant. “He really appreciated that gesture,” Abraham said. 

Later that year, though officially retired from ownership, Abraham went into restaurant consulting. It began with a call from Florida State College at Jacksonville. It continues today for River & Post Restaurant in Summit Tower. “It gives me the opportunity to see a lot of my friends and customers who used to frequent my restaurants in that 5 Points area,” Abraham said as he reminisced. 

Norman and Carol Abraham
Norman and Carol Abraham

Abraham has been in the hospitality industry he loves for over 40 years and has owned a dozen restaurants throughout Jacksonville, some simultaneously, others bought and sold in rather quick turnovers. He recognizes that the diversity of his customers has been a contributing factor toward his success, and his employees, too—many of whom stayed with him for 15, 25, 30 years. “I have to give a lot of my success to my employees, my wife, and Jesus Christ my Savior,” he said. 

Presently, Abraham is a member of St. Johns Presbyterian Church in Ortega, close to the condo that he and his wife have lived in since they sold the 35-year Herschel Street family home to their son over a dozen years ago. They enjoy three grandchildren.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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