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Food & Dining

Houck: Former gas station becomes a good neighbor

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 01:12 PM
TAMPA -

Editor's note: During the week of the Republican National Convention, columnist Jeff Houck visited restaurants, shops and other places in the Tampa area to listen to what people were saying about politics – what they care about (or whether they care at all). His column will continue through Election Day in November.

It doesn't matter who wins the White House in November.

Obama. Romney. Flip a coin.

Whichever man gets the keys to this nation should get down on his knees, close his eyes and thank his lucky stars for people like Neyda Venegas.

While politicians are busy arguing in Washington over how much sand in the sandbox belongs to them, Venegas is busy running her Buy & Fly Corner Café on South 50th Street and Palm River Road, and generally acting as a one-woman social safety net.

From the outside, the former gas station looks like any of those gritty, urban convenience stores in Tampa that only people from the neighborhood visit. They're always in those "used-to-be" buildings, recycled when the chains moved on to more affluent parts of town. As in, "That used to be a Pizza Hut."

Instead of having gas pumps that blast high-definition TV ads while you fill your tank, Neyda's café is adorned with hand-painted signs that grab eyeballs with words like "HOMEMADE DEVIL CRABS," "CAFÉ CON LECHE" and "CUBAN TOAST."

Inside you'll find a great wall of refrigerated cases filled with the Jamaican and Latin colas you can get only on this side of town, and beers in cans big enough to be artillery shells. There is a hot buffet table where you can grab a quick lunch of Cuban picadillo or Mexican tamales or Puerto Rican pasteles while sitting at mismatched tables.

Next to a prep table with a small, white-covered Holy Bible on the shelf, there is an Anvil press that makes what might possibly be the crispiest Cuban sandwich in Tampa. Neyda makes them with a surgeon's attention to detail. She uses the same recipe her aunt taught her at age 9.

Neyda has run her mother's café and rented an adjoining tire store for 23 years. She is a businesswoman with one employee – herself. Whatever decision gets made is hers alone. The check that pays for the beer delivery – tucked in her bra next to a cell phone – is signed by her.

But that doesn't explain Jerry Foster. He lives in a small apartment behind the tire store. In exchange for rent and cigarettes and the occasional adult beverage, Jerry sweeps and mops and preps some of the food.

He's not on the payroll. And you won't see him on a government labor report. But he's there almost every day she's open, waiting for Neyda to yell for him to pitch in. Sometimes he answers back when she calls out on the intercom. Most times he doesn't. He just appears silently from the back with whatever she needs. It drives her a little crazy.

The café has worked like this for seven years, ever since Jerry had trouble getting hired for day labor.

"Jerry helps me," she says. "We have an arrangement. He's a good right hand."

Government stats also won't show the guy she and Jerry call Cowboy, who Neyda gives leftover food when it doesn't sell that day. He pulls weeds for her and does yard work for the mobile home park next door. It beats going hungry under the Palm River bridge a few blocks north.

On Thursday and Saturday evenings when the café is closed, Neyda lets two church groups feed the homeless on the red picnic tables out front. They've been doing it for so long, she has forgotten which churches provide the food. The thank-you plaque they gave her hangs behind the register, right next to a depiction of the Last Supper painted on a mirror.

You won't hear her complain about the bureaucracy that insisted Neyda replace her relatively new fuel tanks because someone in the federal government tweaked an environmental rule and said they had to be double-walled. As an independent operator, she didn't have a spare $125,000 lying around to retrofit, and she worried that getting a loan would overextend her finances, so the tanks were yanked. A subtle unicorn logo now covers the Texaco star on the overhang outside.

Without the gas pumps to bring people into the store, the food must be good enough to draw passing motorists and hungry neighbors. That's why she sells chorizo snacks for $1.49 and a line of sugary Churroman churros to go with shots of Cuban espresso. Come in for a soda and you might get a sample shot of chile con carne. Like any café with good food, she has her regulars. Don, an older customer with a long yellow-white beard, sometimes eats there twice a day with Lola, his black-and-white Boston terrier.

"Lola is like his daughter," Neyda says. "They go everywhere together."

To make ends meet, Neyda sells chihuahas on the side, whenever her dogs Bella and Suki have pups. Even there she has a soft spot. A woman with a sad tale who wanted a dog wound up getting one for half-price.

Still, she's no pushover. A tall, skinny kid in a white T-shirt is told that she doesn't cash checks for customers anymore. A fast-talking guy who wanted to buy the property got dispatched after he kept shifting the sale price and terms of the deal. The soda and beer cases have doorbell alarms on them to stop shoplifters. Even Cowboy gets a nudge out of the café because his boots smell like diesel from the tire store.

"She's got a big heart," Jerry says between wide sweeps of a mop in the dining room. "But it's a two-way street."

Some Washington campaign consultant in a suit would probably slap a catchy phrase on what she does. Something like welfare-to-work. Or maybe compassionate conservatism. They'd say we were, "Moving forward." Or that, "She built it."

Neyda calls it Wednesday afternoon. It's what she does. Business as usual.

jhouck@tampatrib.com


(813) 259-7324

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