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Lutz shop owner Gaudin wants less government

Unconventional and partyless, the owner of Hot Rod's BBQ hopes his folksy appeal earns him a seat at the table.

By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

LUTZ -- The permit application went to the Florida Division of Hotels and Restaurants, and soon was causing double takes.

A small restaurant planned in Lutz would serve smoked bat, armadillo eggs and Cajun cannon balls. Meat would be barbecued in a converted 16-foot propane tank. Diners would eat in a ramshackle, hillbilly-style house. Or maybe outside, nearer the live rabbits and chickens.

A state official pondered the plans five years ago and complained: "This is totally unconventional."

"Thank you," replied the restaurateur, Rod Gaudin.

Still unconventional, Gaudin, 57, is campaigning for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. A former Democrat and Libertarian, Gaudin is running under no party banner. He filed an ethics complaint when he was excluded from Republican debates. His folksiness has leavened dead-serious general election debates. And he has handed voters 4-ounce jars of "common-sense sauce:" barbecue sauce from his restaurant, Hot Rod's BBQ and Grill.

In a sense, Gaudin's story begins in the restaurant business. His mother owned a restaurant in New Orleans. After Gaudin's father was killed in the Korean War, Gaudin and a brother moved in with their grandmother on an 800-acre farm in Bush, La.

When his grandmother died in 1960, Gaudin moved to Florida to live with an older brother. Gaudin eventually earned an associate degree in accounting at Hillsborough Community College. He began 15 years with Lil General convenience stores, in auditing, operations and marketing.

He entered politics in 1985 as a Democrat, running for the same commission seat he hopes to win next month. Gaudin finished fourth among five Democrats. Pam Iorio, now supervisor of elections, was elected to the commission.

But Gaudin learned a lesson about Lutz: the community cherished its small-town past.

In 1993, after 30 years with convenience-store chains, Gaudin took over a store in Lutz. He threw out all the corporate rules and created a country store like one he remembered as a child.

Gaudin sold barbecue, fried green tomatoes and 80 varieties of hot sauce. Turkeys and chickens fluttered among the produce bins. Sunflowers hovered over parking spaces. Coffee was free on Fridays.

"A lot of guys are down to their last buck, so it's just a good gesture," Gaudin said.

During 1997 he phased his concept from the store to a restaurant next door.

Over nine years, Gaudin has endeared himself to Lutz, contributing free or discounted food to an endless parade of civic functions. A third of Gaudin's campaign contributions have come from Lutz.

Last year, Gaudin claimed Lutz as his new residence for voting purposes, listing his address in a row of shops he owns next to Hot Rod's BBQ. Gaudin actually lives with his wife and her elderly mother in West Tampa, outside District 2. But nobody has challenged his claim of residency.

More than his opponents, Gaudin has shaped his issues from personal experience.

He lists the water supply as his top concern. His mother died of cancer at 62 after living near an aluminum plant outside New Orleans. That suburb later was found to have polluted air and water and high cancer rates, Gaudin said.

Another concern is government regulation. Gaudin's restaurant odyssey is only one of his memories. He has been cited for illegal burning, and says a county employee once saw him painting a post in front of Hot Rod's, and told him he needed a permit.

Lately, Gaudin has exacted moments of revenge.

He telephoned the county's purchasing department one day to determine how much Hillsborough County pays for toilet paper.

"They had no idea how I can find out," Gaudin said. "I think we've got to start at the bottom; and when we learn what toilet paper costs, we can learn what everything else costs."

Saying the county is top-heavy with bureaucrats and administrators, Gaudin is calling for a 10 percent cut in administrative costs. He's shocked at the dark-horse status people give him for not running as a Republican or Democrat.

Republican Ken Hagan's treasury is five times the size of Gaudin's. Democrat Ron Dyser's is more than double.

"Some people may call me a dreamer," Gaudin said. "But I believe in miracles."

* * *

-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or .

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