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Seminole Heights restaurants face struggles amid killings, post-Irma

TAMPA — The neighborhood's hip circle of popular, well-regarded restaurants is feeling the squeeze in the wake of a recent killing spree. And the timing is rough.

News of three recent homicides in southeast Seminole Heights, which police believe are linked, have pulled the already tight-knit Tampa neighborhood together. The shooting deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, Monica Hoffa and Anthony Naiboa have also brought heightened attention and security from the Tampa Police Department.

In the local restaurant business, September and October already tend to be the slowest months of the year. Hospitality industry folks are treading water until high season gears up, tourists and snowbirds return and holiday functions begin. Then Hurricane Irma impacted Tampa Bay businesses for more than a week in September.

It's a slowdown for an otherwise busy food corridor. In less than a decade, restaurants including Rooster & the Till, Ichicoro Ramen, Fodder & Shine and Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe have turned the residential neighborhood into a dining destination.

Ferrell Alvarez, co-owner of the award-winning Rooster, said his restaurant was open the Friday before Irma hit, but it was "already super slow." He closed Sept. 8 to 11, reopening that Tuesday to diminished numbers. How much did it impact the bottom line?

"The lack of revenue hit we took was upwards of $35,000," he said. And while Rooster never lost power, the already-prepped food had to be given away or transformed into staff meals.

Melissa Deming, co-owner of Ella's, who estimated her Irma losses to be "many, many thousands of dollars," closed Sept. 8 to 11, with a "skeleton menu" upon reopening Sept. 12.

And now this.

Kimberly Overman owns the Financial Well, a financial planning firm, as well as the Heights Exchange, a co-working space, and is in the final months as president of the Heights Urban Core Chamber before running for the Hillsborough County Commission. Growth overall has been tremendous, she said, with chamber membership increasing from 25 to 250 in the past three years.

Media attention has contributed to paltry restaurant sales in Seminole Heights, she said.

"When people are frightened they stay away," Overman said. "A lot of people who would normally drive here are not. The last 60 days have been rough for our business owners."

The neighborhood's restaurants cluster densely along Florida and Nebraska avenues from roughly south of Sligh Avenue and north of Osborne Avenue. The shootings, by contrast, were across the highway to the east, on and around N 15th Street, near bus stops.

With quicker restaurant growth than population growth in Seminole Heights, each restaurant gets a small fraction of restaurant-goers' dollars. This is happening at precisely the same time industry experts are predicting a restaurant recession.

Rooster's business was down 50 percent Saturday night and Ella's weekend sales were also significantly reduced, though Deming said Sunday brought a bit of an uptick. And Monday night, Ella's planned to host a fundraiser for Lee Elementary School, which burned down due to an electrical fire in the wake of Irma. Her aim was to sell 100 tickets; only 60 had sold and some ticketed attendees were begging off, one woman citing the fact that her sister had been in the recent Las Vegas shooting and she felt spooked.

"We thought maybe we should cancel, but that just means whoever is doing this crazy stuff wins," Deming said. "We are a strong neighborhood, and it has become a destination because of our restaurant scene. We've worked so hard to get where we are. It's sad that one person with a gun can do so much damage."

Ella's, one of the flagship restaurants in the neighborhood's restaurant renaissance, is taking precautions, keeping the lights on all night, having employees walking to their cars in small groups, and keeping the restaurant locked once customers have departed for the evening.

Some neighborhood businesses report little change. Veronica Danko, who owns the Independent and co-owns the Jug & Bottle Dept., hasn't seen a slow-down. The Independent was at capacity Sunday night for a live music event, she said.

"There was a movement in the neighborhood this weekend for people to go out and support the local businesses . . . " she said. "There has also been a movement for people to walk around the neighborhood in groups and hang out on porches with the lights on to show that the residents of Seminole Heights will not be terrorized by this killer. And I did not do this on purpose, but I have been to five Seminole Heights establishments in the past five days. And I'm going to Ella's tonight."

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.


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