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The Social hub of SoHo

Business deals are brewing. Relationships are percolating. The Starbucks on South Howard Avenue may be the social hub of SoHo.

By RICK GERSHMAN
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2002


[Times photos: Ken Helle]
Starbucks, at 715 S Howard Ave. has become the place to work, flirt, wheel and deal.
SOHO -- His wife, his friends, even his family have turned on him.

Have a heart. Play along with Bill Miller.

His nickname notion: This is the hip, cool place (Starbucks Coffee) in the hip, cool neighborhood (SoHo) in the hip, cool area (South Tampa).

So it needs a hip, cool name.

Miller's designation:

SoBucks.

"That's what we call it," says Miller, a freelance technical writer who lives near the coffee shop, arguably SoHo's primary social hub.

photo
Deborah Zusman shows off Sam, a bichon Frise.
We? Apparently, this is a Freudian quip, referring to Miller's id, ego and superego. And no one else.

"SoBucks? I don't call it that," says his wife, Kara.

"Never," says buddy Ron Dorsey.

"I've said it once or twice," says his stepsister, Whitney, "but just to make him happy."

Cut Miller some slack: Is "SoBucks" unlike SoHo, a cutesy compression of "South Howard Avenue?" It rolls off the tongue with ease, not so for "New Suburb Beautiful."

Miller favors the frozen, sweet Caramel Frappuccino. The uninitiated need not rush to the dictionary. The Caramel Frapp is one of Starbucks' trademarked signature drinks, just as Miller is one of Starbucks' trademark customers. He is among the trademark hundreds in SoHo who line up to buy beverages, baked goods or retail coffee beans from this Howard Avenue coffeehouse every day.

photo
Ellen Zusman, cuddles a Yorkshire terrier.
How many hundred? That is for Starbucks, and only Starbucks, to know. Corporate honchos keep numbers close to the vest, then inside the vest, then bury the vest out back under two tons of concrete.

But all agree on this: The SoHo store does "very, very well." Miller's appellation -- SoBucks, so many, many bucks -- might be more apropos than he knows.

Some clientele visit briefly, scratching the caffeine itch on the way to work or school, or dropping in for an after-dinner decaf hookup in the evening. Others sit a spell, especially at night. They hang out with friends, socialize and fraternize, meditate and mediate.

They work and flirt and wheel and deal. Inside SoBucks, reading, studying and casual conversation are the constants. The outside tables attract the dog owners, the smokers and generally the larger and more social clusters of conversationalists.

All of which fits into Starbucks' philosophy. While the company name has become synonymous with "coffeehouse" in popular American culture, the SoHo store is the prime example of Starbucks' desire to become:

A "third place."

* * *

Ashley Wood and Dan Radde get ready for the next rush of customers.
SoBucks is closing on its cotton anniversary.

It opened in April 2000 and retains a couple of its original employees, though as with so many corporations these days, they're not called employees. They're not associates, not crew members. At Starbucks, they're partners.

The managers, get this, are called managers. Running the show is manager Jill Sarnelli, who reports to district manager Amy Powell. While the SoBucks store certainly appears to be far busier than many other locations, revealing comparison numbers is entirely verboten.

Powell, who supervises 11 stores but was trained here, calls SoHo "a great location, a great neighborhood store" that epitomizes the "third place" concept stressed by the company.

University of West Florida sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the "third place" term in his book The Great Good Place, in which he asserts that a healthy and balanced social identity historically requires three factors: home, workplace, and "a third place," an informal community hangout.

Starbucks wants to be that place.

Some might suggest the place comes at a high price: Hot and cold coffee drinks that can run close to five dollars each, depending on the size, added flavorings and extra espresso shots.

Bags of coffee for sale line a shelf.
(Sarnelli tells of a regular who routinely orders a coffee drink with 10 shots of espresso. We would attempt to speak to this man, but quite honestly, we're afraid of him.)

Yet, few customers who spend an hour or two -- or 10 -- at SoBucks could argue the cost. Buy an iced tea or a cookie and you can linger all day, studying, working on a laptop computer, whatever.

Doors close at 11 on weekdays and midnight Friday and Saturday, and the store often has as many closing-time stragglers as an Ybor City bar at last call.

* * *

At an outside table, Michele Gusie boasts the sweetest pit bull around -- softie Sable Angel -- and the most interesting occupation.

Michele Guise
Gusie is a house mother, she explains, for dancers. She doesn't immediately indicate what kind of dancer, but this is Tampa. You automatically know.

Gusie -- Brett Favre-like, it's pronounced "guys" -- works late hours assisting "her girls" seven nights a week at a local club.

Days, she walks to Starbucks to get a Tazo Chai tea fix and "show off" adorable Sable Angel, a barrel-bellied 4-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier who craves attention and affection.

The coffee shop's outdoor tables often teem with packs of leashed dogs. They could hold the Iditarod if not for the lack of snow.

Every morning before work, SoHo sisters and neighbors Deborah and Ellen Zusman make a 11/2-mile, round-trip walk with a canine contingent -- Sam, 8, a Bichon, and TeeJay, 9 months, a Yorkie. The sisters babysit the pooches on alternating days.

Ellen, who works for family-owned Zee Management, relaxes with a soy no-foam latte, while Deb, a real estate consultant, trends tighter to the mainstream: Regular coffee with nonfat milk.

Stephanie Cannella and Jeff Dodd go over sales reports while sipping their morning coffee.
"We lived in cities, New York, Los Angeles, where we've always had this, where you could walk to a place," Deb Zusman says.

Walk, and hang out.

"Until Starbucks arrived there was no place for gathering," she says. "This gives us something to look forward to before going to work."

Some don't wait for the office. They bring along laptops and click while they sip.

Laptops may outnumber dogs.

In fact, on a gorgeous Monday at Starbucks, this very sentence is being written on one.

A laptop, that is. Not a dog.

* * *

Currently sporting the laptop-dog ensemble is Sunset "My Name Really Is Sunset" Desellier, a computer programming student. She's drinking a tall half-fat Iced Vanilla Latte, she actually loves the SoBucks moniker (way to go, Bill) and she's accessorizing with a striking but sensible combo of Dell Inspiron notebook and 2-year-old beagle, Max.

photo
Rick Wolfe starts each day with a Starbucks coffee, large and black.
Max, belying the accepted worldview of beagles, never attempts to use the Inspiron to write stories beginning with "It was a dark and stormy night."

"He does carry his dish in his mouth, though," Desellier claims.

We'll buy that, but not this:

Sunset?

"That's what everyone calls me. See, it's on my cup."

Not exactly going to get through airport security with that. What did your Mom name you?

Busted. "Jen."

We were hoping for something more interesting.

"Well, obviously, so was I."

Around the corner from Desellier, Tom Sawtelle has no laptop, but later he will claim to have been working. For the moment, to the naked eye -- and naked ear -- Sawtelle is yelling at an invisible person.

It's a common sight at SoBucks. At least a dozen times a day, otherwise perfectly healthy people sit in chairs and yell at invisible people. People no longer even bother to look for the telltale cell phone headset wire sticking out of the ear. They just presume it's there.

* * *

The guy with the multilayered black hair and huge mutton-chop burns babbles along without a phone. He's The Artist, and he doesn't want his name in the newspaper. Not unless his name is accompanied by one of his drawings.

Phone numbers are traded, a meeting planned for 4 p.m.

photo
The Starbucks logo hangs on a sign out front.
Later, The Artist calls, leaves a message on voice mail: His time is valuable, he says. For him to take time to show his drawings, the paper will need to come up with cash.

He ends the message with "See you at 4, maybe."

Maybe not.

Also not wanting to see their names in the paper: Numerous men who equate SoBucks to a meat market.

While the coffeehouse likely won't put the neighboring Hydeaway or nearby Hyde Park Cafe out of business, these men note that many attractive professional women congregate here, especially after working out across the street at Extreme Fitness.

Like The Artist, most of these men -- several of whom finger wedding bands -- prefer not to be quoted. An exception is Rich Wolker, 39, a divorced speech therapist enjoying a Friday afternoon Mocha Frappuccino and a cigar at an outdoor table.

He doesn't mind noting his appreciation for "the talent," using a term shared by many of his anonymous brethren.

"I don't like meeting women at clubs, because you can't get to know them," he says. "You meet very nice people here."

Fittingly, Wolker's head turns for two nice people exiting Chandler's restaurant, both young women, one brunette, one redhead.

Are they nice people?

Wolker smiles. "Yeah. They're very nice people."

Not to suggest Wolker goes out of his way to meet, um, nice people, but he does live in Citrus Park.

photo
Howard Blackmon always drinks decaf.
"Yeah, but I work in Westshore. So this is kind of, um . . ." He hesitates.

Completely out of your way?

Busted redux. "Yeah . . . but I love the coffee."

So why not the Starbucks on North Westshore or South Westshore or in WestShore Plaza?

The speech therapist is speechless.

Back to Desellier, if that's really her name, given equal time for her party's response. Unnecessarily but usefully representative of all heterosexual women, she notes: "Yeah, you see a lot of cute guys here. You also see a lot of good looking women.

"I see people here having dates sometimes. . . . It's a nice, casual way to get to know someone for a first date or something."

Back off, Rich; she's attached.

* * *

Elsewhere, coffee drinkers conduct business. Inside the coffeehouse, Jerry Clark and Jay Furnari are, respectively, the new president and executive director of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Though their offices are downtown and neither lives nearby, they know this is a good place to see and be seen by Tampa business people. Says Jay, tall skim latte in hand: "We need to be visible."

They should step outside and say hi to Howard Blackmon and Rick Wolfe, who each work in commercial real estate. They each start the day with plain coffee, decaf for Blackmon.

"Every day I smile and order a large black coffee," Wolfe says, stressing that he doesn't use Starbucks vernacular for drink sizes: tall (the smallest), grande and venti (the largest). "I don't speak the Starbucks language."

Server Dan Radde adds whipped cream to a specialty coffee.
When he first visited a Starbucks, Blackmon says, "I would order a cafe con leche. Rick would say, "They don't have that!"'

Wolfe was joking: It's coffee with steamed milk, a drink Starbucks makes all the time. But the company does use very different terminology. In addition to the size names, one finds words here such as "Tazoberry."

No, you won't find the Tazoberry bush anywhere in nature. It's a mix of raspberry, fruit juices and Starbucks' own Tazo tea.

Wolfe says he doesn't conduct a lot of business at SoBucks, though it is conveniently adjacent to the SoHo Apartments, which he owns. He sees a lot of marketing and advertising deals going down, though.

The developer is blunt about why this coffeehouse is prime ground.

It boils down to this: People willing to spend several dollars a day on coffee might have the means to brew something bigger.

"Look at it this way -- every day, I buy the cheapest coffee they have here," Wolfe said.

It costs him two bucks.

"That's $60 a month on coffee," he marvels. "That's half of my car insurance."

It isn't called SoBucks for nothing.

-- Writer Rick Gershman, a venti half-fat vanilla latte, has lived in Tampa for 12 years and is known to frequent SoHo.

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