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Aunt Hattie's brings back memories savory and not

The restaurant served up home cooking and offbeat promotions for decades before setbacks, including an ugly dining room incident, closed it.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 10, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- For Anne McEwen, there was more to Aunt Hattie's Restaurant than plates smothered with creamed chicken and dumplings.

"There was the horse and wagon they rode around the city to advertise," said McEwen, a library assistant at St. Petersburg's main branch. "At about age 12, we all climbed on. We got to hold the reins, but the horse knew where he was going."

Aunt Hattie's first was a hamburger hot spot, established in 1939 by Ed and Hattie Boore. It evolved into a landmark for home-cooked food and offbeat promotions.

"It was a way of life to many," said Bruce Boore, 45, Ed and Hattie's grandson.

"It was oranges in the foyer free for the taking, the player piano beating out East Side, West Side, hostesses in Gay Nineties garb, the children's treasure chest of free gifts," journalist Elizabeth Whitney wrote. "The servings were big; the prices were low."

In the 1980s, the restaurant suffered a series of setbacks: a hungry rat, a bankruptcy and the taint of Internal Revenue Service charges that ultimately were dismissed. Hurricane Elena floodwaters closed the restaurant for good in 1985. "Anything that was so successful a tradition as that was a sad thing to see go," former patron Lon Cooper said.

In 1937, the Boores commuted between here and Canada while operating a Central Avenue fruit stand and an Ontario boardinghouse. A promoter victimized them in 1939 by taking off with their investment in a Hollywood, Fla., skating rink concession.

To recover their loss, which included proceeds from their Buffalo, N.Y., property, the Boores rented an unimposing beer garden at 625 First St. S with their final $300.

"(Hattie) hung out a sign that said Aunt Hattie's and headed for the kitchen," a restaurant history reads. "Ed and their son, Frank, peeled potatoes, scrubbed pots and ran errands."

Recruits at the nearby Coast Guard base hungered for Hattie's 10-cent hamburgers, and sales ballooned. "It was a windfall," Frank said.

By the mid 1940s, Hattie's had increased its seating from 16 to 42. The building was razed in 1950, except for the kitchen, and replaced with a 160-seat restaurant. Five years later, a reception room and gift shop were added.

Ed died in 1962, and Hattie moved to California. In 1965, Frank and his assistant Christine Poppell had a roof, shutters and 50 more seats installed. The kitchen was spared again and remodeled.

"I guess I'm a little superstitious, a little sentimental," Frank said.

Hattie's featured hash, chicken in the woodpile (French fries and fried chicken), and unusual attractions. "The promotion that got the most attention nationwide was the swapping of 10,000 oranges for (10,000 pounds) of fresh snow from Fancher, N.Y.," Frank said. "The children loved it."

Frank advertised shares in an Alaskan totem pole and sold antiques in his parking lot. He paid 5 cents in 1970 for every political sign brought into Hattie's. "We got thousands of posters and helped beautify the city," said Frank, 76, who now purchases antiques.

In 1970, Hattie's named Ross Giunta its general manager and opened Uncle Ed's Restaurant one block away. By 1979, Giunta had purchased controlling interest in Hattie's, and his $250,000 investment helped Hattie's battle a withering tourist trade and escalating coffee prices. But in 1980, a rodent from a University of South Florida construction site came calling.

"I felt as though a needle was going through my (middle) toe," said Marilyn Mindon, who was wearing sandals and dining when the rat struck. "His back legs were dragging."

As stunned customers watched, Mindon's father stomped the rat to death, wrote Paul Tash, now editor and president of the St. Petersburg Times. The incident gained nationwide attention; Hattie's lost 75 percent of its business.

By 1985, Hattie's Clearwater bakery and warehouse were sold, and the county placed the restaurant on probation for structural problems.

Then came Hurricane Elena in the fall of the same year. "We had 6 feet of water in the restaurant," said Giunta, 63, who has saved thousands of Hattie's recipes. "It was a real catastrophe. We never reopened."

In 1986, Chase Bank of Florida foreclosed a $135,000 mortgage on Hattie's equipment and antiques. The city purchased the property and donated it to USF. The restaurant was leveled about 1988; Hattie died a year later in Farmington, N.M.

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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