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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2018
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Houck: Old meets new at The Corner Store in Plant City

PLANT CITY - The rust-colored bricks that form North Palmer Street's backbone are interrupted by East Reynolds Street's asphalt ribbon. When a downpour hits in the afternoon, the runoff streams from the smooth, flawless surface and onto the grooves of the Augusta Block, where it is soaked in by the dirt underneath. At that crossway stands The Corner Store. Part restaurant and part grocery store, Cynthia Diaz and her husband Joe have created a place where old mingles with new. Inside, the walls are covered by unvarnished, knotty pine planks. White enamel cannisters of mineral salt, baking soda and powdered sugar sit in bulk on shelves below lights with shades that look like hand-woven baskets. Customers sit at mismatched tables as a radio plays songs from decades past. Fifty cent jars of orange marmalade stand in a pyramid on a counter. Behind that counter, Ben the beagle sits quietly on a small leash, barely able to keep his eyes open. It's a place Andy Griffith would have recognized.
The menu? That's another story. In a town dominated by chain food restaurants, Cynthia Diaz, the owner and cook (she doesn't call herself a chef), created a menu for the slow-food movement. Motto: "Eat Well Or Die!" That includes sandwiches like The Grazer, full of grass-fed roast beef, red onion, tomato, spinach and provolone, with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and horseradish aioli on a ciabatta roll. And The Gobbler, a Thanksgiving meal of a sandwich with roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, provolone, spinach and Dijon mustard on white bread. Then there's The Goat, named for the goat cheese, chicken, roasted red peppers, red onions, tomato and spinach nestled in a wrap. There's sweet tea, if you like. It's the house wine of the South, as they say. But you could also wash it all down with a green smoothie made with spinach, romaine, cucumber, apple, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and coconut water. In south Tampa, a menu like this would barely raise an eyebrow. In Plant City, it means something entirely different. And in downtown Plant City, tucked amid historic buildings filled with antique stores, it's almost unthinkable that you would be able to find food like this. Diaz, 39, opened the place in December 2007 because she was driving to a half-dozen places from Lakeland to Tampa to get the ingredients she wanted to eat. "I figured if I couldn't get them, no one else could, either," she says. "There was a hole I thought I could fill." This isn't the path she planned for herself. After growing up outside Washington D.C., she graduated from the University of Maryland and later got her master's degree in rehab counseling at San Francisco State. After gigs working for non-profits and government services, she worked for a time at a farmer's market cafe in San Francisco and rediscovered a love for food nurtured by watching Julia Child on TV as a little girl. When a couple asked her to cater their wedding, she realized she could feed large groups of people. In 2004, her husband Joe's grandmother became ill at her home in Valrico, so the couple moved east to care for her. Noticing the unoccupied store front downtown in Plant City, Diaz decided to open The Corner Store. "I knew it would be a challenge," she said. She started off by making it more of a store with organic food and ingredients than a restaurant with groceries for sale. That was before places like Publix and Sweetbay started offering staples like quinoa and flax for sale. Her specialty is selling local. That includes eggs from free-range eggs, honey and bee pollen from nearby hives, and housewares like soaps and aprons made in Plant City. Five years later, Diaz and The Corner Store are getting the attention they hoped for. Edible Tampa Bay magazine last week published a four-page profile. The Lakeland Ledger did a big spread as well this month. Lakeland food blogger Logan Crumpton of EatADuck.com wrote in January that it was the one restaurant where his family of very finicky eaters could all find something to enjoy. "It was as if this place was built for the sole purpose of satisfying the needs of my family exactly," he wrote. "Just about everything sold in the grocery area is organic or natural," he says. "The dining area has a little 'kiddie kingdom' play area so your spawn can expend some energy while you relax with a nice Cigar City Ale and some grub." Alanah Kovacs, 19, said during a recent lunch with her mother, Cathy, "This is the opposite of the typical Plant City restaurant. It's fresh. It's a place where the younger generation can come and get a bite to eat." As she says this, the radio at low volume plays a song from 1936. "Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven." Yes it does. Right at the intersection of old and new. [email protected] (813) 259-7324
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