TAMPA — With its history of Latin immigrants, gangsters, revolutionaries and artists, Ybor City is an eclectic collection of fascinating characters.
Cephas Gilbert is near the top of the list.
For more than three decades, Gilbert has sold healthy Caribbean cuisine and natural elixirs such as aloe vera shakes from Cephas’ Hot Shop restaurant at 17th Street and Fourth Avenue.
The place bears the colors of his native Jamaica and features a backyard seating area so flush with foliage it looks like a plot of land ripped from the island.
To accentuate the healthy benefits of his menu, the 62-year-old proprietor is known to perform feats of strength, leaping up onto a tabletop or holding a coconut in one hand as he cracks it open with a machete wielded by the other.
He is revered for feeding people who cannot afford to pay for his food.
“This is a vibrant area with many colorful people, but Cephas stands out among them and has for over 30 years,” said Gene Siudut, a member of the Ybor City Development Corp. board and resident of Ybor. “That’s saying something.”
Now, Cephas and his business face the prospect they’ll be drifting soon into Ybor’s colorful history.
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Cephas’ Hot Shop has been closed for operating without a food service license. Gilbert sheepishly acknowledges it expired five years ago, three years after a fire nearly burned him out of the business.
Before he can renew the license, he needs $15,000 to make repairs in the dining area. He set up a shack outside after the fire to fill to-go orders.
Sometimes, he is upbeat about his chances.
“I’ve been through tough times before,” he said. “And I always do fine. I won’t be going anywhere.”
Other times, he’s ready to throw in the towel.
“I have friends in Chicago and New York who said I can go to any of those cities and they’ll help me open up a restaurant. So I have options.”
Friends in Tampa are working to keep him here.
Donations of $20 and up are being accepted at gofundme.com/rebuild-cephas-hot-shop, through the efforts of Josh Dohring, of the commercial real estate company The Dohring Group.
“He’s had a major impact on my health,” said Dohring, who credits Gilbert with helping him lose 30 pounds. “He’s taught me what to eat and what not to eat, and I’ve met countless others who same the same. He’s a staple of Ybor City and one I don’t want us to lose.”
Gilbert opened in 1982. The only Ybor restaurants open longer are in the history books: Columbia, Carmine’s and La Tropicana.
Others are pitching in by bringing by papaya trees, arts and crafts and other items for a fund-raising auction. No date has been set.
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“It would be terrible for Ybor to lose Cephas,” said Jill Wax, whose vintage clothing store La France has operated in Ybor City for 40 years. “He’s one of those little jewels in the treasure box that is Tampa that everyone needs to indulge in.”
Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco says he visits Cephas whenever he is in Ybor City, sometimes for an aloe vera shake and sometimes just for conversation.
“He’s the American dream,” Greco said. “He came to this country with little and built a business and the respect of a community through hard work and good will. I don’t think I’ve ever driven by his place and not seem him working — day or night. I hope his restaurant reopens so I can keep seeing him.”
The fire damage dates to Jan. 9, 2006.
That evening, a faulty coffeemaker touched off the flames. Gilbert didn’t have renters insurance to pay for dining room repairs. But the kitchen was still operational so he kept cooking and built the three-walled shed fronted by a to-go counter facing Fourth Avenue.
That was eight years ago.
“I always meant to fix the restaurant,” he said. “I’d tell myself next month I’ll have enough money and then the next month and the next. Now it’s been many years and I never got it.”
A few weeks ago, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation shut him down. He knows the state will not license him to sell food from a shed.
With the help of his friends, he is doing what he can to make repairs — building benches, repairing walls and upgrading the bamboo gazebos in the backyard. But new ventilation and floors are outside his expertise.
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Accepting charity is hard for Gilbert.
“I believe in earning what I get,” he said. “I don’t want anything for free. I want to be a community builder. To do that, you need to give, not take.”
But Wax of La France said Tampa owes a debt to Cephas.
“He is a true kind soul who has never wished harm on anyone,” she said.
He’s given away more than $15,000 in free food alone, she estimates, including juice and homemade soup to strangers as well as customers who are sick .
“He’s like a Native American medicine man,” Wax said. “He can tell what is wrong with someone’s diet just by looking at them and then becomes determined to change the way they live so they feel healthier.”
In early 2013, Cephas was injured falling off his bicycle and he was hospitalized two weeks with an infection. Told to spend a month recovering away from work, he went back right away, instead.
Too many people depend on him for healthy food and drinks, he said.
“He has done so much for the people of Ybor, fed a lot of folks for free,” said radio personality Tedd Webb. “And he has brought great entertainment to the barrio.”
His fame extends beyond Tampa.
Mehdy Ghannad, producer and host of the traveling show “The Hostel Life” on Fox Spain, said Gilbert is one of the most memorable people he has ever met.
Ghannad produced a short video on Gilbert, available at the show’s website, www.thehostellife.com.
Gilbert extols the virtues of aloe and teaches the world traveler how to release gas from his body by pumping his legs while standing in place to force out a burp.
“Cephas is a major part of the Ybor spirit,” Webb said. “He was Ybor before it was cool to be Ybor, a real treasure.”