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Calling, begging, pleading all part of the job to help arts center

Published March 28, 2006

Sophia Stallworth fretted during the early stages of Saturday night's Best of Tampa Bay event.

As people trickled in to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Stallworth, the event's restaurant recruitment chair, worried the surprisingly chilly weather might scare away others.

Soon enough, however, the place was bustling with more than 1,500 people eager to sample food from one of nearly 50 restaurants stationed in and around the Center.

"I don't know how we've been able to do it," Stallworth said Saturday during the event.

Really, there wasn't much reason for Stallworth to be concerned. As the owner of her own interior decorating firm, she has an eye for design. As the mother of three, she's a self-made expert on meal planning. As a former University of Florida cheerleader, she is adept at getting people excited.

And I'm also sure her doctorate in pharmacy helped out. After all, sometimes the best medicine is good food.

Oh, and the food was really good. Among my favorites were pot stickers from Big City Tavern, barbecue pizza from Sally O'Neal's, and lemon feta chicken and chimichurri steak from Grill-

Smith, the Clearwater restaurant that has a relatively new location on Dale Mabry Highway.

I also would be remiss not to mention Roy's, which served sui mai, an open wonton stuffed with filet mignon and Gorgonzola. Regrettably, I had so many of those a few other people may have missed out.

Stallworth, in her second year as restaurant recruiting chair, couldn't have been more pleased.

"A lot of people don't realize the performing arts center is a nonprofit," Stallworth explained. "Less than 50 percent of our expenses are covered by ticket prices. The rest comes from gifts, donations and fundraisers like this, so this is a really, really important event."

Recruiting restaurants for the event isn't as difficult as neuro radiology - if it were Stallworth's husband, Dr. Dexter Stallworth, would be an ideal choice for the job - but it is more difficult than you might imagine. Each participating restaurant provides the food for free, so Stallworth does a fair bit of cajoling.

"Sometimes I'm calling, begging and pleading," said Stallworth, who also serves on the board of directors of the Producers, the performing arts center's support group.

Sally O'Neal's and the Columbia are charter members for the event, now in its 21st year. Maestro's, 42nd Street, Oystercatcher's and the Melting Pot have been on board for 10-plus years.

The event is a nice charitable effort for restaurants, and even more worthy for new ones looking for exposure. The challenge comes when restaurants think they don't need the exposure or aren't willing or able to give.

There is an even greater challenge for smaller bistros that simply don't have the manpower to place three or four employees at the Best of Tampa Bay while keeping their own operations going. Most of those offer gift certificates to help out.

Stallworth is undaunted by the task. She got involved with the center three years ago at the urging of Martin Silbiger, a founding member of the University Diagnostic Institute where her husband works. Silbiger also is chairman of the performing arts center's board of trustees.

Now her efforts are paying off in a big way. More and more restaurants are participating, and Stallworth is driven by the fact that a lot of the proceeds go to the Patel Conservatory.

"I think my primary motivation is focusing on the community outreach programs and knowing some of the money helps those who can't afford the classes," Stallworth said. "I like that kids can have an opportunity to get exposure to all aspects of theater ... anything that has to do with performing."

Stallworth has had even more success as a designer. After taking time off from her work as a pharmacist to raise kids, friends continually raved about her home designs and began to ask for tips. She took some correspondence courses from a New York design school and turned her passion into a thriving business focusing on residential interior decorating.

Her eye for stylish choices may be genetic. Stallworth and a number of friends and relatives were wearing unique necklaces at Saturday's event. Turns out the jewelry came from designer Everlena Collins, Sophia's mother.

Collins, who lives in Tallahassee, went to a jewelry design class several years and quickly developed a knack for designs. Now her work is sold throughout the state and is available in Tampa at Deborah Kent's 2120 S Dale Mabry Highway.

I guess creativity and success runs in the family.

That's all I'm saying.

--Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or

[Last modified March 28, 2006, 03:01:29]

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