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Bickering over liquor

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[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Brenda and Sam Lovely, owners of Potbellies Family Restaurant.

By RON MATUS
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 12, 2002


A restaurant wants to serve liquor to its patrons, but some neighbors fear disruption will follow if the request is granted.

They've collected hundreds of signatures in support.

Even a preacher says it's okay.

But Sam and Brenda Lovely still aren't sure the Tampa City Council will approve the wet zoning change they want.

The Lovelys own Potbellies, a restaurant and bar on S Himes Avenue. They serve beer and wine. But they figure they'll pull in more customers if cocktails accompany the New York strips and smothered chicken they serve for dinner.

A few neighbors see things differently.

They see more customers, all right -- and more drunk drivers, more problems with parking and maybe even more bars mushrooming on the border of their quiet neighborhood.

"It's setting a precedent," said Sue Lyon, president of the Bayshore Beautiful Homeowners Association.

The City Council is expected to decide the issue July 25. Two previous hearings on the rezoning -- which would allow the Lovelys to sell hard liquor -- were postponed.

Sam Lovely, 38, isn't optimistic.

Lyon, almost single-handedly leading the charge against the rezoning, is also president of the citywide homeowners group THAN (Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods).

Lovely frets that in an election year, he and his wife don't have enough friends in high places.

Still, they're not giving up. They hired a lawyer. They circulated a petition. They painted the bar fight as David vs. Goliath.

"Please support our fight," says the handwritten sign next to the restaurant's counter.

"We feel like we're picked on," said Brenda Lovely, 32.
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Brenda Lovely takes lunch orders recently from Phil Troy, left, and John Ohr at Potbellies Family Restaurant. The Lovelys are trying to get a full liquor license for the restaurant.

The Lovelys opened Potbellies five years ago. They live upstairs with their 5-year-old son.

The restaurant, decorated with a pig motif, peddles food as down home as the decor.

Breakfast brings Momma's omelet; supper, liver and onions, "like momma used to make it."

The bar is in a separate room. At night, when the restaurant closes, the parking lot fills with pickup trucks.

The Lovelys' restaurant was zoned for beer and wine in January 2001. There were no objections.

But hard liquor "attracts a different crowd," Lyon said.

Lyon doesn't want drunks careening down Himes. She worries parking will spill over to the backside of Britton Plaza or to the front yards of nearby homes. City officials have also raised concerns about parking.

Sam Lovely said Potbellies has enough parking to meet the city's rules. And he said there won't be any liquor-related problems.

"It's basically how you run a place," he said. "They want to compare us to something down in Ybor City. It's ridiculous."

Lyon's response: Even if the Lovelys keep things under control, there is no guarantee future owners will. The wet zoning will be passed on, and today's family friendly diner could be tomorrow's biker bar.

Tampa police did not object to the rezoning.

Lovely said nine officers who are regular customers signed the petition before Lyon made that an issue with the police department. The officers subsequently withdrew their names.

Lyon said all she did was ask Chief Bennie Holder to clarify what the department's policy was on officers signing petitions.

The immediate neighbors don't have a problem.

Anan Chinibas, 34, lives next door.

The liquor license is okay with him.

Likewise, two doors down.

"These people are trying to make a living," said neighbor Lonnie Villines, 53.

Both men said the restaurant is a quiet neighbor. They expect it will stay that way even if gin starts flowing as freely as the Budweiser.

Potbellies even has support from a preacher.

In a letter to the city, the Rev. Donald R. Bishop, from the South Tampa Church of God, said the Lovelys had "good character" and "moral integrity." He asked that the rezoning be granted.

The Lovelys said they don't attend Bishop's church, but Bishop eats at their restaurant.

Lyon called a preacher's support "very strange."

So far, the Lovelys said they have collected 1,000 signatures, with 300 from Bayshore Beautiful residents.

Lyon said she can't compete with that. But she said zoning isn't a popularity contest.

"I won't do dueling petitions," she said.

The July 25 hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. in the City Council chambers, 315 E Kennedy Blvd.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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