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Victims of progress

For smaller businesses along burgeoning U.S. 41, Land O'Lakes' growth hurts.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Randy Bolt is shutting down his Bullwinkle's Quick-N-Easy Drive-Thru along U.S. 41, after construction along the road cut his customer base in half.
LAND O'LAKES -- A redwood's age is measured in tree rings. The life cycle of Bullwinkle's Quick-N-Easy Drive-Thru in Land O'Lakes is measured in the oily trail that runs in a black strip down the center of the building.

Thousands of cars. Thousands of customers. Thousands of Budweisers, Mountain Dews and Marlboro Lights sold.

"Lots of leakers in lake-land," Bullwinkle owner Randy Bolt says Wednesday as a cockroach scuttles over the oil strip in the hangarlike confines of his business.

Bolt is bolting the drive-through bay in the next three weeks. He's a victim of U.S. 41 widening that will draw twice as many drivers but at speeds less amenable to pulling over for a cold six-pack.

Two years ago, the state Department of Transportation sliced 8 feet off the front of his galvanized steel and plywood building to make room for six lanes.

On Dec. 4, road crews installed a curb, sealing off traffic from U.S. 41. The drive-through was suddenly a drive-up. Bolt dubs the day his "Pearl Harbor."

"I'm not doing even half of what I used to do. I used to average 150 (customers) a day. Now I'm lucky if I do 75 to 80," Bolt says. "You see very few new faces. Just the loyalists."

As if to illustrate his waning fortunes, a woman pulls her car up to the surviving bay door on School Road, paying through the window for a single bottle of Zephyrhills Spring Water.

Bolt is no mere beer slinger. He's more of a beverage baccalaureate.

A library of 300 books lines the shelves next to the cooler. Many of them he lends to customers who share his taste for military history and true-life adventure stories.

Classical music streams through the speakers. An Italian cookery show flickers on a rabbit-eared television.

Alas, the library is disappearing into empty Michelob Light boxes for the sad, slow trip back to his house.

One of Bolt's customers/book borrowers is Theresa Ransopher, who has bought soda, beer and milk at Bullwinkle's for the 11 years her family has lived in Land O'Lakes.

"You think he's just a scrawny little redneck, but he's quite an intellectual," Ransopher says.

Bolt bought the business from a friend in 1991, having moved south from Alaska, where he worked in construction. He named the place Bullwinkle's in honor of his favorite cartoon, Rocky & Bullwinkle. Only adults get the inside jokes on the cartoon, he says.

His biggest sellers: Marlboro Light and Budweiser.

"I don't think these people could function without Mountain Dew. I sell more Mountain Dew than I do Pepsi. More Dr. Pepper than Coca-Cola," he says.

During his long hours -- 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. 365 days a year -- Bolt has seen some oddities. Like the woman who tried to make a purchase in her birthday suit. "I told her she'd put me off my lunch," he says.

Bolt's saga is a microcosm of what's happening along U.S. 41, where property values are expanding along with the lanes, forcing out mom-and-pops in favor of corporate chains.

Three local restaurants on U.S. 41, Smitties, Barbazan Smokehouse and Ukelele Family Grill, skedaddled as the road encroached. Smitties was typical in being replaced by a Napa Auto Parts.

Bullwinkle's shows its age, too. A toppled sign out back reads: Mil, read, ggs, cold bee, and sna ks, among other things.

After he closes, Bolt plans to take it easy before hitting the world of work again.

A pedestrian with smeared clothes and a scraggly beard, clutching a smoldering cigarette butt, sums up the transformation as he stroll by Bullwinkle's: "It's what they call progress."

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