Fast Food Comes To A Slow-Food Town
Tampa Bay Online  (TBO.com)
Tampa Bay, Florida
Published: March 16, 2008
By Gary R. Mormino, Tribune Correspondent


TAMPA - A revolution began in Tampa 50 years ago this month. It was made possible by the baby boom, the expanding car culture and Americans' appetite for french fries and hamburgers.

McDonald's, the bright new franchise with golden arches and tasty fries, opened its first Tampa restaurant on South Dale Mabry Highway in March 1958.

Owner and operator Fritz Casper understood demographics and economics. Since the late 1940s, residents had flocked to the Interbay area, and businesses followed.

While old-timers grumbled about the inconvenience of self-service, teenagers and mothers with kids in tow appreciated the restaurant's cleanliness and convenience. Casper's franchise was the third McDonald's in Florida. Now operated by his descendants, Caspers Co. owns 51 McDonald's stores in the Tampa Bay area.

Remarkably, by March 1958, only four national franchises had penetrated the Tampa marketplace. Burger Queen and Frisch's Big Boy drive-in were on Florida Avenue. Biff-Burger occupied the corner of Hillsborough Avenue and Dale Mabry. And there was the Howard Johnson's on Dale Mabry, where diners dived into the fried clams or frankfurters on square buns and finished their meals with an ice-cream cone with one of the famous 28 flavors.

Tampa's Varied Tastes

The national brands opened shop among nearly 400 family-owned and -operated Tampa eateries, which served a culinary cornucopia for varied tastes.

Among the popular spots were Adolfo's restaurant on Tampa Street, Zichex Drive-In on Gandy Boulevard and Dick Ward's Kwik Burgers.

The smell of hickory and oak attracted customers to Old Fashioned Georgia Barbecue on Yukon Street, Bostick Shoe Shine & Bar-B-Que on Garcia Avenue; Pig Pig Cafe on Fortune Street; and the Old South Pit Barbecue on Franklin Street.

During those days of segregation, black patrons crowded the Afro Hotel Dining Room on Garcia, the Colored Drive-In Sandwich Stand on Fourth Avenue and Green's Dining Room on Scott Street.

Spanish and Cuban choices included El Buen on Eighth Avenue, El Paraiso Cafe on 16th Street and Cuervo's Spanish Restaurant on Broadway Avenue.

The yellow pages of 1958 also listed the Dipsey Doodle, the Spic 'N Span and the Wig-Wam Lunch.

For drumsticks, people followed their noses to Chicken and Chips on Hillsborough, the Chicken Basket on Bayshore Boulevard, Long's Chicken & Biscuits on MacDill Avenue, Monty's Chicken Basket on Grand Central Avenue and Jake Walker's Chicken & Chips on Dale Mabry.

In 1961, however, a Kentucky colonel took command of fried chicken in Tampa.

Col. Harland D. Sanders, who began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in 1955, built his first Tampa location at North Florida Avenue and Fairbanks Street.

Beginnings In Kentucky

At 71, Sanders had already lived quite a life. A grade school dropout, he worked on a steamboat, sold insurance, farmed and soldiered. Sanders also opened a gas station in Corbin, Ky. He served fried chicken on the side. When a new highway bypassed his popular eatery, the colonel exported his secret spices and recipe.

The title of colonel being strictly honorary, Sanders realized he was his store's best ambassador, so he dressed the role of a Southern gentleman in white suit and string tie.

Sanders understood that a lot of people were moving to Florida. He did not need an adviser to tell him that Tampa was a good place to open a fried chicken emporium. Checking out suitable sites, he passed the Cinchett sign company in Seminole Heights, stopped and went inside.

Delia Cinchett remembers that "he was wearing his signature white suit and black tie. ... He was the kindest and most proper Southern gentleman you ever met - he always had a smile on him."

John Cinchett, son of Delia and John, related the scene.

"The next day, my dad and grandfather met with Col. Sanders at the shop and discussed his plan for two restaurants and were given the contract. He knew exactly what he wanted for the signage. ... He liked to do business with local owners," he said.

"Whenever Dad went to meet him, he always gave Dad five or six dinners to take back to his co-workers for dinner."

Pamela Ellis Espy remembered that her father, Robert U. Ellis, helped Sanders set up a store on Dale Mabry. She has a picture of her father and Sanders in her living room.

"I can remember my father getting up on weekends and hauling crates of chicken in the back of his new Buick," the Plant High School graduate added.

The crates of iced-down chicken parts would leak. "Boy, did my mother have a fit."

Gary R. Mormino, director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, can be reached at gmormino@stpt.usf.edu.

Copyright March 16, 2008
Tampa Bay Online (TBO)

 
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