TAMPA — No matter their profession, when residents of West Tampa needed a Cuban coffee or sandwich fix during the community's heyday through the mid-1900s, the Fourth of July Cafe was the place to be.
"The fishermen came at 5 in the morning, then a little bit later the cigar workers, and around nine the white collars came," said Mary Gegunde, whose family owned the cafe from the late-1920s through early-1970s.
"Around 10:30, the blue collars came back for lunch and in the afternoon the white collars for espresso. It was busy all day."
But modern times could not support the Fourth of July Cafe, even through the Fourth of July.
A West Tampa staple for a century, it closed June 30.
Armando Padron, Jr., who owned it last, wanted to retire, restaurant regulars. He is on a vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Gegunde, longtime customers and historians had plenty to share, though.
"When old timers talk about the early days of West Tampa, the Fourth of July Cafe is almost always a topic of conversation," said retired judge and West Tampa native E.J. Salcines.
His favorite childhood delicacy was served there — a pound cake made exclusively for the cafe by Alessi Bakery.
"Everyone in West Tampa called that cake a submarine."
The eatery was founded by Teodor Carbonell.
In past interviews, Padron claimed it was established in 1905, but city directories don't list it until 1931.
"Like Tampa itself, the history of the Fourth of July Cafe is steeped in shadows, coffee, and a little blood," said Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department.
Huse uncovered articles from The Tampa Tribune describing illegal gambling at the Fourth of July Cafe in 1917 and another story from 1922 about a fight where man brandished a revolver.
Juan Gonzalez is named proprietor in those archives, "assuming the police or Trib recorded the real name, which was not always the case," Huse said.
The Fourth of July Cafe had four locations over the years.
The original was at 1610 N. Howard Ave., Salcines said. It moved to 1704 N. Howard Ave., then to 2146 W. Main Street and finally to 1611 N. Howard Ave.
Gegunde said her grandfather Luis Perez relocated the restaurant to its second and third spot. The Main Street site was the most successful.
"West Tampa was different back then," Gegunde said. "It was its own city."
West mirrored Ybor City as an immigrant community with cigar factories. Cafe walk-in traffic was plentiful, and two streetcar lines intersected nearby.
"I made sandwiches there for two weeks in 1959," Gegunde's husband Frank said. "I couldn't keep up. They'd need Alessi bread three times a day."
Prices that year, he recalled, were a nickel for a shot of espresso, nine cents for a cup of coffee and 35 cents for a Cuban sandwich.
A corner marble table in the third location was reserved for dignitaries.
During baseball season, when regulars listened to games on the radio, her uncle Jose Llerandi lined up donuts on the counter to playfully taunt customers whenever their favorite team was held scoreless for extended innings.
In the early 1970s, Gegunde's father Peter Pasetti sold the business to his longtime waiters Guillermo Faedo and Pedro Castanedo.
After he was robbed outside the cafe, Faedo sold his rights to Castanedo, who would later sell to the Padron family, Judge Salcines said.
Jiany Rodriguez, who works at neighboring Caldeco Air Conditioning, said regulars still hope the Padrons sell the rights to the name.
If not, Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco will go down as its final customer. He purchased a Cuban sandwich just before 2 p.m. on June 30.
"They then closed their door and turned away a customer," he said. "The Fourth of July was a stronghold for the neighborhood for years. It's always sad to see an icon fade away."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.