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Chains vs. charm

As more chain stores sprout in South Tampa, small businesses find the going gets tough.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002


[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Leigh Toborowsky, owner of Rainforest Pets, sells pet supplies and small animals. Keeping her company in the store are her bird, Darla, a bare-eyed cockatoo, Jack, a one-eyed cat, and Jo Jo, a terrier mix.
DAVIS ISLANDS -- Some days, among the thinning shelves at the Davis Island Super Market, owner Frank Gregorio sings to himself.

He sings a World War I ditty.

How ya gonna keep em,

down on the farm,

After they've seen Pa-ree?

Gregorio isn't envisioning American soldiers wowed by a city in France.

He's mourning his former customers, lost to the lure of Publix.

Call it the theme song for a threatened way of life.

Between the Kash n' Karry on Swann Avenue and the Publix on Platt Street, Gregorio, 56, says the establishment his father built in 1957 can't survive much longer.

"Within a year this will be excavation material," he said last week, taking a break from cutting chicken.

"It's progress," he shrugged.

Chalk up another victory for chain stores.

It happens all the time. People barely notice. Yet, store by store, block by block, chains alter the face of South Tampa.

It's an explosion in slow motion.

Kaboom: In May, Lowe's Home Improvement sought city approval to open next year at Twin Bays Plaza on S Dale Mabry Highway.

Kaboom: Last week, PETCO confirmed plans for a 13,000-square-foot pet superstore on Kennedy Boulevard near WestShore Plaza.

Kaboom: Monday, CVS Pharmacy, the nation's largest drug store chain, opened at Gandy Boulevard and MacDill Avenue.

Once, long before SoHo had a name, Saturday wasn't complete without a trip to Burts Hardware. Mom-and-pop pharmacies dotted South Tampa. But Burts gave way to an Eckerd, and Burts' former crosstown rivals -- Bay to Bay Hardware and Davis Islands Hardware -- now survive in the shadow of lumberyard giants.

Rumor has it that Borders, Barnes & Noble or another big book store could move into Old Hyde Park Village.

Independents shudder.

Are big chains such bad news?

Maybe so, if you prefer the funk and rhythm of South Tampa because it's, well, South Tampa, and not Orlando or Jacksonville or, heaven forbid, North Tampa.

Jay Furnari said he cringed when he found out Panera Bread, a popular chain restaurant, was going up on Howard Avenue where the Chatterbox, a longtime South Tampa watering hole, used to be.

Nothing against Panera, said Furnari, executive director of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Nothing against any of the chains.

They didn't become successful by being slouches.

But independent businesses are "what make every city with character special," he said.

Picture SoHo without Hugo's. Or Gandy Boulevard without Kojak's.

* * *

Coffee shop owner Melony Whitehead waits for customers during a lull at Mel's cafe on Platt Street.
Small businesses have banded together to repel the invaders.

Two weeks ago, about 20 South Tampa merchants encouraged customers to go chain-free during "Independents Week." Leslie Reiner, co-owner of Inkwood Books, said a repeat is planned for late fall.

"We want people to think where they spend their money," she said.

Furnari doesn't see a crisis. But he does see a threat.

South Tampa's 4,000 to 6,000 small businesses are a scrappy bunch, he said. Most will hold their own against trendy competitors that buy in bulk and advertise nationally.

South Tampa residents know they have it good. They might patronize the new Chick-fil-A, but they haven't forgotten Palios Brothers.

They wouldn't throw it all away for a fling with a mere vanilla latte at Starbucks.

Or would they?

"We have to fight," said Furnari, who once beat back a McDonald's in New Orleans, where he headed a neighborhood chamber group.

"We have to keep reminding the people of South Tampa of the history and culture of this place."

Like invasive plants, chain stores first take root at the edge, where native habitats are already compromised by people just passing through -- the interstate exit, the main drag, the mall. From there, the seeds roll on.

There are always new varieties making headway in business ecosystems where mom-and-pops once flourished.

The latest to sprout in South Tampa:

The pet superstore.

PETCO, with 580 stores nationwide, expects to debut here in October.

"This year?!" exclaimed businesswoman Leigh Toborowsky, who owns Rainforest Pets on Henderson Boulevard.

"Oh, shoot," said Maria Snider, who owns Barks by the Bay & Meows Too, a pet supply store on S Dale Mabry Highway.

Snider had heard PETCO was coming to Tampa.

But not South Tampa.

"I didn't know it was going to be so close," she said.

Snider fears PETCO will carry the specialty dog food and high-end collars she carries.

Toborowsky worries, too.

"Not good," she said of PETCO's expected arrival.

Rain Forest Pets offers more than fish, birds and supplies, she said. It also takes in unwanted animals -- dogs, cats, guinea pigs, even pygmy hedgehogs have survived thanks to Toborowsky.

"My bottom line is different," she said.

* * *

Chains don't overrun South Tampa like they do other neighborhoods. With so much developed real estate, there's little room for new businesses to sprout, chains or otherwise.

Yet the chains march on.

In South Tampa, independent pharmacies are all but extinct. In their place: at least two Kash n' Karry pharmacies, three Publix pharmacies, a Target pharmacy, four Walgreens and five Eckerds.

Bobby Bobo, owner of Davis Islands Pharmacy, knows what the new CVS will mean for small business.

Insurance companies already direct many of their clients to chains.

"It's getting tougher," he said.

To survive, he followed the mantra of many embattled mom-and-pops: specialize.

Bobo said his pharmacy can tailor-make prescriptions to suit a patient's needs, unlike many chain stores.

Interbay Pharmacy on Manhattan Avenue is in the same boat.

Patricia Reasor drives there from Bayshore Boulevard, even though others are closer to her home. A few years ago, the owner delivered medicine to Reasor's 94-year-old cousin.

She's been coming back ever since.

"
Melony Whitehead, owner of Mel's Cafe, brings coffee to customer Margaret Bush of Brandon. Bush often stops at Mel's after dropping her kids off at summer camp in South Tampa.
I'm loyal," she said.

So is Pati Pi, a regular at Mel's Cafe on Platt Street, just around the corner from the new Starbucks on Howard Avenue.

A few years ago, there wasn't a single Starbucks in South Tampa. Now they're everywhere.

Pi lives in Hyde Park. Either cafe would be convenient. But she prefers Mel's for her chocolate caramel iced latte with soy.

While she waits at the drive-through, her "supermutt," D, goes to the cafe door. He looks like he's ready to order.

"It would be sad if this was a cookie cutter city," Pi said.

The manager, Melony (as in Mel) Whitehead, said some of her customers did jump ship for Starbucks. But not enough to make a difference.

"I'd only be worried if they threw one right up on the street," she said.

Some insist they'll fight instead of roll with the punches.

Barry Thorne, owner of Creative Oceans aquarium store on S Dale Mabry Highway, compared PETCO to boxer Mike Tyson, who was demolished last month in a heavyweight championship fight.

PETCO might be bigger, he said. But its employees can't match the knowledge his employees have acquired over the years.

"My guys," he said, "are going to chew 'em up and spit 'em out."

* * *

Back on Davis Islands, the grocery is a shell of its former self.

Gregorio, the owner, pointed to columns between the floor and ceiling.

Walls used to be there, he said. But his late father had to expand the store. Twice.

Business was that good.

Now, he said, even relatives drive past him on their way to Publix.

"I see them. But I don't say anything," he said, laughing. "They're family."

Gregorio said the property has been for sale for six months. He said a likely replacement will be a mix of retail and residential.

He couldn't imagine a new grocery blossoming there.

Unless it's a chain.

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

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