OCEAN CITY, N.J. — It really took a lot for Pamela Womble to start saying it out loud.

“Because then I would become very emotional,” she said. But there was no getting around it. She and her husband, chef Herbie Allwood, would not be reopening 701 Mosaic on 4th Street in Ocean City. They were done.

No more Mosaic salad. No more jerk chicken or Escoveitch fish. No more meticulous service on the patio filled with plants nurtured by Allwood, an oasis made more lush every time someone brought over another plant. Now there is a sign for Gail’s Salads instead of Womble’s ever-more-provocative chalkboard.

And also: no more 5:30 a.m. calls to the fish purveyor. No more 20-hours day, overnight trips up to New York or Philadelphia for fish or chicken for the day. No more of the stress of the last two pandemic years.

Their decision settled nicely, no looking back. “He made up his mind and said, ‘I’m done,’ ” said Womble, 66, of her chef-husband, 73. “Stick a fork in it.”

Once Womble started to tell people, it turned out there was much to say. About being possibly the last Black-owned restaurant in Ocean City, about the challenge of running a restaurant in a dry town, but also about themselves. Their love story, an enduring partnership.

About their wonderful customers, yes, the ones who became friends and invited them into their homes, but also about the people who told them how their restaurant should be run, and about the police who repeatedly stopped their Black J-1 visa international workers as they rode their used summer bikes home after work.

Broached with granting an exit interview after 14 years in Ocean City, Womble and Allwood were game. Womble comes from the financial world, UBS, where she worked in leadership development and diversity and inclusion. Exit interviews are essential in that world, if lessons are to be learned, and the organization moves forward.

In this case, the organization is Ocean City.

It’s a town where Womble’s Aunt Betty lived, where she has been coming since she was little. The move here from New York City, where Allwood was an executive chef at Simply Pasta, allowed Allwood the chance to “go back to the pan” and cook his own specialties, the Jamaican of his birth and the Mediterranean of his career.

Now, they will finally use those beach tags for themselves.

“We talk about that sometimes; you actually will yourself out of the box, but you will yourself into another box,” said Allwood. “Leaving New York, we thought we were going to the beach, all that. It never really happened. For all the years.”

On a pleasant spring morning recently, they nursed coffees outside the neighborhood cafe, Positively Fourth Street, and spoke for three hours.

They bought the building in 2003, and it took five years to navigate a thicket of zoning, permits and historical commission meetings, and also what they believe was resistance from town officials about a Jamaican restaurant opening in Ocean City. They are grateful to neighbors like John Loeper from the Northwood Inn, who helped smooth the way for them.

“People made sure we moved forward,” Allwood said.

Allwood was drawn to the sturdy brick building with the mosaic accents, an old pizzeria. The number 701 felt lucky, as his grandfather had lived to 107. The building is now for sale.

‘Thank you for your feedback’

At first, people tried to tell them how to run the place.

“People wanted us to change the menu,” Womble said. “And I was not nearly the magnificent outspoken woman that sits before you here today, and I would just say, ‘Oh thank you.’

“But inside I was seething because I thought, ‘Do you do this everywhere you go? Is it because we’re newcomers? Is it because we’re Black business owners?’ At the time, we were only the fourth Black business owners in Ocean City. Now, we are the last.”

Ocean City doesn’t compile lists of Black-owned businesses, so it’s hard to say with absolute certainty, but Womble says the others, including Still Waters massage and a window washing business, no longer are operating. The State Department of Treasury lists no minority-owned businesses in Ocean City in its database.

Over the years, they developed a loyal and appreciative clientele, who warmed to Allwood’s soft-spoken charm and skill in the kitchen, and laughed along with Wombles wit.

They appreciated her passion to create a fine dining experience at 701 Mosaic, especially in a dry town, albeit one with private clubs that serve alcohol and get daily delivery from liquor stores on the mainland. They joined an unsuccessful effort to allow BYOB.

“There’s no doubt in my mind a Red Stripe would be perfect with this jerk chicken.”

Some bristled when her chalkboard food musings turned to quotes about immigrant children in cages without proper food, or the Flint, Mich., water crisis, Womble said.

“I actually got a call from someone that said, ‘I don’t think I should have to see this when I come on vacation,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Thank you for your feedback.’ ”

In the beginning, a blackout

Their love story was born in a blackout, summer of 1977 in New York City, working in a Manhattan restaurant. “Herbie says, don’t move. He doesn’t want me to bump into something hot. He goes and gets candles,” Womble said. “That was how we started talking.”

“Man of the hour,” Allwood pipes in.

“I used to say he stole the best years of my life,” Womble joked.

“Saved my life,” Allwood said.

The back and forth between them is touching and warm, and Womble’s inner comic is never far away. She once did an open mic in Ocean City in which her jokes were about her husband, whom she called “Mr. Man.”

“I wasn’t invited,” Allwood said.

People are still calling him “Mr. Man,” though.

Living in a beach town grew to feel natural. Sometimes, they’d drive back to Brooklyn after closing on a Sunday, and the city felt overwhelming. When friends came to visit, they’d marvel at the transformation of their friend by the sea.

“I come tearing down Ocean Avenue on my bicycle, my skirt’s billowing, and my friend said, ‘This is amazing,’ ” said Womble. She would agree.

Black in Ocean City

In the beginning, Womble said, “I bit my tongue a lot.” But there were challenges along the way in being one of the few Black business owners in Ocean City, and sometimes in just being Black in Ocean City.

As time went on, she spoke her mind, on Facebook, in person, on the chalkboard, sharing her political views.

Recently, she said, she’s seen visitors to the boardwalk begin to better reflect a more diverse demographic and less the white Ocean City that questioned her family when they spread out on a certain beach.

“One time, a white man came over and said, ‘You know, I think you folks would be more comfortable down that end of the beach,’ and my mother said, ‘Oh no we’re fine,’ ” Womble recalled. “And my Aunt Ruth who was the most glamorous woman you’d ever met in your life, big hat on, artfully posed while she’s reading, while me and my friend Frances are in and out of the water, and my mother’s just laying [there], and it’s like Aunt Ruth? Move? You’re asking her to do what? No, that’s not happening.

They hired locally as well as international students to work at 701 Mosaic on J1 visas, at first mostly from Europe, then, when word got around, from the Caribbean.

“Every kid rents a bike or finds a bike to buy for $40 and then at the end of the seasons they sell it for $35,” Womble recalled. “And our kids, they ride to wherever they’re staying, and they were routinely stopped by the police.”

Asked to comment, Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman said that that his officers do not stop people based on their race or ethnicity but on their behaviors, and they undergo training every year. “Our police officers do a fantastic job with the melting pot of people who come to Ocean City whether it’s J1 students or visitors, regardless of their ethnic or racial origin. We have very, very few complaints.”

There were also incidents involving themselves. In one, Allwood was unloading their car, while the renters next door were waiting for an electrician. The owner next door had asked Allwood to also watch for the electrician. In the meantime, the renters called the police to say, “There’s a man that appears to be under the influence, toddling across the street.”

After the cops came, they said, “Herbie!” and told the renters, “Oh you’re in good hands.”

“They were very apologetic,” recalled Womble. On Facebook, she wrote: Add unloading your car while Black to the list.”

Another time, about a decade ago returning to Ocean City around 2 a.m., the couple was stopped by police. Womble was sleeping in the front seat and said the police officer hit the passenger side of the car repeatedly to startle her awake.

“Boom, boom, boom, boom,” said Allwood.

(In response to this incident being described to him, Chief Prettyman said, “That doesn’t happen in Ocean City.”)

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“It didn’t sour me,” Womble said, “because Ocean City isn’t immune from what happens all over America.

“You know, the people that have befriended us, and opened their hearts and their homes to us, it has made it all worthwhile,” she said. “I don’t want to minimize those experiences as just blips, but they are inevitable.”

Allwood’s hoping another Jamaican or Caribbean restaurant will see their success and give Ocean City a try. “The appetite has been opened here already,” he said.