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Debts threaten kosher food store's future

By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published December 24, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Sandwiched between an auto body shop and a cabinet maker on 23rd Avenue N, Jo-El's kosher food store has kept Tampa Bay area Jews well-fed for more than two decades, dishing out religiously approved delicacies from Israeli cous-cous to beef from a kosher cattle ranch in Postville, Iowa.

But Pinellas County's only full-service kosher butcher has fallen behind on its loan payments, and its future may be at risk.

In a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County, lawyers for AmSouth Bank allege that Jo-El's owners failed to keep pace with two loans they took out in 1999. The Alabama bank is demanding repayment of $132,042 in principal, along with accrued interest, late charges, collection costs and legal fees.

AmSouth notified Jo-El's this month that it intends to seize the store's contents as collateral, valued at $20,000.

Joel Goetz, who co-owns the store with his wife, Ellen, confirmed that the couple was behind on the AmSouth loans, which they used to open a kosher deli in Carrollwood that later failed. For several months now, he said, family company Kosher World Inc. has only been able to afford interest payments, not principal.

Goetz said the couple had been cooperating with AmSouth and has every intention of repaying the 7-year, $160,000 note and $50,000 line of credit.

"I'm trying to work this out, and the next thing I know, I get this lawsuit," he said.

The couple is being represented by St. Pete Beach attorney Joel Broida. Tampa lawyer Ronald Cohn is handling the case for AmSouth.

Goetz, 62, vowed to do everything possible to keep Jo-El's open. That should come as good news to bay area Jews who follow the laws of Kashrut, which govern food purity and other dietary standards.

"In our part of the state, Jo-El's is the place," said Rabbi Jacob Luski of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. "Some of the supermarkets may have some kosher product, but no one carries the variety Jo-El's does."

As a volunteer with Va'ad HaKashrut of Pinellas County, Luski is responsible for regularly ensuring that Jo-El's meets Conservative Jewry's kosher standards.

Orthodox Jews, who have tighter standards, have even fewer choices in the bay area. Many shop at the Jersualem Cafe in Dunedin, which doesn't have a kosher butcher but does sell packaged meats. Jo-El's doesn't meet Orthodox standards.

Jo-El's also draws Jews and non-Jews who don't keep kosher but like its corned beef sandwiches and matzoh ball soup.

Urged for years to expand across Tampa Bay, the Goetzes opened a kosher deli and bakery in Carrollwood in 1999. Two years later, subpar sales led the couple to try broadening the menu, which also meant giving up its kosher certification. The store closed in 2002. Jo-El's is still battling with its former Carrollwood landlord over rent.

Goetz said he won't let that happen to Jo-El's. "We're not going anywhere."

- Times staff reporter Chris Sherman contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

[Last modified December 24, 2003, 01:16:08]

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