A joke, a hot link, a well-timed compliment: Gregarious restaurant owner Fabious Worthy was into making people feel good, and he usually relied on the potent combination of humor, Southern cooking and general positivity to do it, up until the end Friday, when he lost his nine-month battle with lung cancer. Worthy was 67 and a lifelong resident of Bakersfield.
"He always stayed strong and funny," sister Sharon Worthy said Tuesday. "He was such a character. On the Sunday before he passed, he did a video and said, 'Happy Sunday, everybody!"
Worthy was the owner of Fabious' BEST BBQ & Catering, a business he started with financial help from friends about 17 years ago following a career in the oilfields, said Josephate Jordan, Worthy's friend and pastor. Never formally trained in the kitchen, the entrepreneur started his restaurant career modestly enough, at a space inside a Union Avenue gas station before, with success, he moved his operation up the street to a larger, stand-alone building. In the years that followed, Worthy would hopscotch all over town, from the southeast to Rosedale in the northwest, finally landing on Fourth Street in central Bakersfield. His last location originally was intended to accommodate just his catering business, but he began offering a takeout option because, Jordan said, "People kept knocking on the door and worrying him."
"People followed him all the way from Rosedale back to this side of town," Jordan said. "He didn't just have African-American customers but all people from all over. He did catering from as far away as Oklahoma. He was well known."
Worthy and his wife, Elvira, kept the business going until about three weeks ago, when his failing health forced them to close the doors for the last time, depriving Bakersfield of the Worthy ribs, tri-tip, pulled pork, dirty rice and his famous peach cobbler. Worthy's wife and children have no plans to continue the restaurant and catering business without him, Jordan said.
"He had a slogan," his friend said. '"If the meat doesn't fall of the bones, you don't have to pay.'
"There were no refunds that I know of."
One of 16 siblings, Worthy grew up in a rural paradise around Cottonwood and Pacheco roads, on a ranch the family called "the Ponderosa," after the famous home of the fictional Cartwright family on the television series "Bonanza."
Though the Worthys were raised in their mother's strict Pentecostal faith, Sharon Worthy described an idyllic childhood of horses, cows, chickens, huge family dinners prepared by their mother — Worthy's culinary role model — and sibling hijinks, especially on the part of her brother, Fab, whom she and friends knew by a multitude of nicknames: Fabulosa, Fabulous Fab, Fabbio and Little Joe, in keeping with the "Bonanza" theme.
Like his fun-loving television counterpart, Worthy would let loose with a prank or practical joke when his siblings would least expect it, she said.
"It was just his character. He just embodied humor. When we moved back (to Bakersfield), my son was little, and he said to me, 'I don't know why you guys aren’t filthy rich because Uncle Fab is way funnier than Eddie Murphy.'"
The humor came with a wild streak that could, at times, be self-destructive, his sister and friend said. Worthy had a number of scrapes with the law, resulting in drug and battery convictions.
But then, around the time he opened his restaurant, things started coming together for Worthy. He'd met his second wife, Elvira, and recommitted to his faith. His sister tells a story that will be recounted at Worthy's funeral:
"A black man with a brown horse came walking down Lotus Lane with God in his heart and a Bible in his hand and that was Pastor Jordan. He kept loving on him and loving on him and, eventually, my brother was a deacon in the church there. It took him years to give his heart to the Lord."
Jordan picked up the story from there:
"He was a guy out there in the street doing his thing, drinking and partying and doing whatever he wanted to do. He had some issues with the police and when I met him, he was still drinking."
The two began riding horses together but Jordan never told Worthy he was a clergyman.
"He asked me after he knew I was a pastor why didn’t I say something about it, and I said, 'You’re a grown man and it’s none of my business.' And one Sunday, I looked up and he was at church.
"He fell a couple of times; I sat him down and talked to him and he’d get back up and take off again. No matter what was going on in his life, he would always come to church. He’s been a very faithful guy."
Faithful but never uptight or puritanical about it, Jordan said. Always the cowboy — his go-to uniform was boots, hat and western shirt — Worthy was famous for his Clint Eastwood one-liners and a saying rooted in his Creek Indian heritage.
"He'd say, 'You can’t sneak up on an Indian,'" Jordan said. "There are several different meanings. Like if you were trying to run a game on him, he would say it."
Restaurant critic Pete Tittl last visited Worthy's barbecue joint in 2006, when it was located on Rosedale Highway. He raved as much about the big personality behind the counter as the 7-Up cake and Oklahoma potatoes:
"Fabious is a gregarious man, often found in his small dining room schmoozing with customers and otherwise acting like the most genial host you could hope for in the restaurant business," Tittl wrote. "He'll talk about anything, and you wish he ran a coffee shop because he's got the kind of upbeat personality that goes over better than a hot cup of coffee. He can talk about anything, and he will, especially if the crowd is light. The guy likes food and he likes people."
His sister gives a full-throated amen to the people-person description.
"Five people in one day said to me, he would make a woman with the most unkind features walk out of his place like a queen."
And now Worthy and her brothers and sisters are struggling with how to say goodbye to the first of their siblings to pass on. But she does know what he would say.
"I remember what my brother always would say to end a conversation: 'Ciao, baby.'"
Worthy is survived by his wife, Elvira, and their children: Fabious Worthy Jr., Tipney Worthy, Matthew Worthy, Tara Joy Shepard and Cindy Layday. Also surviving Worthy are his 16 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, his brothers and sisters and many nieces and nephews.
A wake will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Jordan's church, Christ First Ministries, 625 Robinson St., and friends and members of the public are invited to share stories. The funeral is at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. John Baptist Church, 1401 E. Brundage Lane. Following the burial service at Union Cemetery, the family is planning a celebration at the Friendship House Community Center, 2424 Cottonwood Road.
"Black folks call the celebration a repast," Worthy said. "That means there will be lots of food."