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Manager counts shop's blessings

It could have been worse, says Michael Brocato of Brocato's Sandwich Shop after a stolen car was driven through a store window.

Published March 9, 2006

TAMPA - By 7 a.m., Sylvia Hatfield had her spiel down pat.

Expect no party trays from Brocato's Sandwich Shop on Wednesday, she told customers.

Ditto for Cubans, Italian sausages and BLTs.

The night before, a someone had driven a stolen car through the shop's front window. No one was hurt, but concrete blocks, glass, debris and a giant oil spill covered the restaurant's dining area.

Sorry, honey, the kitchen's closed.

"A lot of people want to still see if they can order," said Hatfield, a longtime cashier who manned the phones Wednesday. "That guy just said, "I'm praying for you 'cause you've got the best sandwiches in the world, so get back going."'

Normally by 11 a.m., Brocato's staff of 20 would begin serving a long line of customers at the 5021 E Columbus Drive shop. Instead, owners of the family business surveyed the mess Wednesday and waited for insurance agents.

Michael Brocato, the restaurant's manager, counted his blessings.

It could have been worse, he said. At least the restaurant had closed early the day of the crash. At least there were no injuries. At least most of the concrete block building stood firm. At least they had their friends.

Customers and friends stayed into the wee hours of Wednesday morning to help the Brocatos board up the building's gaping hole.

"It's amazing how, when you're down and out, people respond and help to get things back in order," Brocato said. "You don't see that very much."

Nestled in the shadow of Highway 41 and Interstate 4, Brocato's is a neighborhood institution. It's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody. Where sandwich makers keep the same job for decades. Where customers, from blue-collar workers to businessmen, order "the usual" and waitresses know exactly what they mean.

Created as a meat and grocery store in 1948, Brocato's counts three generations of family members among its operators. Sicilian immigrants Manuel and Katie Brocato started the business. Their son, Joe Brocato, had dreams of becoming a teacher. But he left the University of Tampa after one year and took his place beside his parents.

Now 72, Joe Brocato lives in a two-story house behind the sandwich shop. He often helps out, but his son, Michael, is in charge.

Despite the shop's plywood-covered windows, dozens of hungry customers dropped by for lunch Wednesday. Could anything quiet their collective stomach growls?

One man settled for a soft drink. Joe Brocato gave it to him on the house.

Kevin Reddish came in search of Brocato's $5.99 special: a Cuban sandwich, black beans and rice and a 16-ounce soda. Disappointed, he headed to McDonald's.

Truck driver Robbie Epperson was decidedly frustrated.

"I came all the way from Tennessee to get me a Cuban sandwich," Epperson said. "Somebody told me this was the best place to get one."

Unsatisfied, he took a nap in the cab of his truck.

Other customers told the staff they'd be back tomorrow.

The lunch rush over, the Brocatos and their employees spent the rest of the day cleaning up. Police continued to hunt late Wednesday for the driver who crashed into the shop and ran away.

For now, Brocato's dining room is closed indefinitely. They hope to open the restaurant's express window today.

Sherri Day can be reached at 813 226-3405 or

[Last modified March 9, 2006, 02:45:12]

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