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How sweet it is

You scream, I scream, we all scream for Bo's scheme. And why for 50 years, in Seminole Heights? Because it's the good stuff.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published October 29, 2004

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - It's 10:30 on a Friday morning when the first customer eases up to the service window at Bo's Ice Cream.

"What can I get you?" Kenny Bosanko asks for what seems like the millionth time.

"Butter pecan in a waffle cone."

After all, it's still breakfast time.

Bosanko spoons out two baseball-sized scoops, delicately places them in a cone and wishes her a good morning. The customer takes one lick and leaves smiling.

For 50 years, Bo's Ice Cream has been making people smile.

"We've seen a lot happen in this neighborhood over all those years," said Bosanko, 59.

In 1954, Bosanko's father, Kenneth, thought he could make a buck running an ice cream stand. The early days were tough. The elder Bosanko sold greeting cards to make ends meet. Eventually the stand became the place to go for a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone and other sweet delights.

Bo's has thrived at the corner of N Florida Avenue and Flora Street through Seminole Heights' ups and downs. It opened at a time when residents kept their doors unlocked and their windows open. Florida was a main north-south thoroughfare. Interstate 275 didn't exist.

The neighborhood soured as the suburbs boomed. Drug dealers popped up on corners.

Bosanko remembers when a dealer stashed a matchbox full of crack cocaine in his parking lot when the cops made a sweep. Bosanko decided it was a good time to hose down the lot, conveniently destroying the matchbox and it contents.

"I think that guy wanted to kill me," he said.

Another time about 25 years ago, Bosanko noticed three men drive up in a large sedan. They were wearing heavy coats in the middle of the summer. Bosanko knew something was up and grabbed a gun he kept near the register. He also alerted his father and brother working in the back.

As the men stepped out of the sedan, Bosanko saw that one was carrying a shotgun down his leg. The would-be robbers looked up, and the three Bosankos were standing in a line pointing handguns at them.

"You can get back in your car and live," said one of the Bosankos. "Or you can keep getting out and die."

They got back in the sedan.

"We never saw them again," Bosanko said.

In recent years, Old Seminole Heights has had a renaissance. Some of the suburban dwellers have moved toward the city. Others have come for the bungalow-style homes or to avoid sky-high prices in South Tampa.

Bosanko, who lives with his wife near the store, sees far less crime. His lines are as long as ever, often stretching 30 deep on a weekend evening. He added a drive-through a few years ago, which draws even more customers.

"There's something about eating ice cream in cars. People love it," he said.

On a recent Saturday night, a handful of employees pull off a chaotic ballet, taking orders and running the goodies out to the cars. They must work fast to keep the cars from backing up onto Florida, but not too fast as to topple a sundae or drop a cone.

On busy nights, they know not to ask too many open-ended questions. "What do you want with that?" evokes hmmms. They go for specifics.

"Do you want pineapples with that?"

"Nuts or no nuts?"

"Chocolate sauce?"

Some come from as far away as Clearwater for Bo's homemade ice cream. Others who grew up on Bo's return years after moving to other cities.

Otis Baker, 46, buys shakes and cones at Bo's four or five times a month. He's been coming ever since he could drive.

"The ice cream is off the chain, man," said Baker, holding a giant banana milkshake. "You gotta try it."

So what's the secret? Use the highest-quality ingredients possible and sell the final product for a fair price, Bosanko said.

Bo's makes all of its own ice cream and uses only real fruit. No fake purees. No mystery ingredients. The top seller is the upside-down banana split, served in a cup for easy eating. Bosanko's favorite is the hot fudge brownie sundae, a calorie counter's nightmare.

Troy Wood, 26, has worked at Bo's on and off for about eight years. He spends summer nights at the stand and works construction the rest of the time. The Bosankos treat their employees like family, he said.

"This place has stood for five decades," Wood said. "It's fun working at a place with a lot of history."

Bosanko would like to see the area ride the revival wave. He wants some of the used-car lots along Florida to become shops or restaurants. He hopes the buzz about a coming Starbucks becomes reality; he was disappointed when plans fell through for a nearby Walgreens.

"Now that the area is on the rebound, it needs some help from the city," he said. "We need to keep it going in the right direction."

Bosanko doesn't worry about competition. He has forgotten most of the names of the ice cream shops that have taken a shot at dethroning Bo's. They last a while but inevitably go under, he said. Bo even outlasted the Dairy Queen on Hillsborough Avenue.

Bosanko took over Bo's in the early 1990s. His brother, Bob, died after running the stand for 25 years.

Bosanko still remembers the day when his dad opened Bo's. A 9-year-old boy, he thought he was in heaven. He ate so much ice cream the first day he made himself sick.

These days, he knows not to eat too much. But it's his knees and ankles, not his stomach, that beg him to give it up.

Unofficially, he says, Bo's is for sale. He hopes a group of former employees will raise enough money to keep the dream going.

For now, though, Bosanko keeps dishing out smiles.

- Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 14:57:26]

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