A toddler with a fistful of cash weaves through the Saturday morning crowd at Mamas Kitchen on N Florida Avenue in Tampa to find his waitress. It's a working breakfast for the 2-year-old. Fellow diners seem nonplussed at the towhead waving Andrew Jacksons, but his father sips black coffee and waits.
Ivo and older brother Marek, 5, are restaurant pros, having breakfasted at 104 different independent, mom-and-pop restaurants in the Tampa Bay area with their dad, Andy Seely, 42. They have driven 100 miles pursuing a single breakfast. Together they are the brains behind the tampabaybreakfasts.com blog. They have business cards.
At each restaurant, they award "pancakes" (five being tops) on the basis of criteria like staff friendliness, uniqueness and, in fact, pancakes. They gave Mamas, a five-pancaker, the 2012 Breakfast of the Year Award. It was also the very first place Seely took baby Marek, long before the website started. A boon to Tampa Bay diners, the website has served other functions, as a sacrosanct Saturday ritual, an educational laboratory and a tiny act of mercy.
There are things we cede gladly in the name of parenthood, and there are other things that smart a little. Women aged 30 to 60 sleep an average of six hours and forty-one minutes on weeknights. A new mother may get that much, but in fits and starts due to feedings and other disruptions. Heather Seely was fine with that, but she missed sleeping in on Saturdays.
"I'm an early riser," says Andy, who is the chief engineer for a computer division of Central Command at MacDill. "My wife was the type who would sleep until noon. So I'd pack Marek up with baby food, and I'd sit for an hour and have toast and coffee until he got fussy."
But then Andy saw a book called Vintage Tampa Signs and Scenes at Inkwood Books, and it got him thinking.
"Here's this snapshot, this slice of Tampa. The book is about signs, but it turns out to be a survey of a city. I thought I could do a snapshot of breakfast."
That snapshot is colorful. The trio has found many, many independents, "a surprising number given Tampa's overt love affair with chain stores," Andy says. Classic Southern diner breakfasts abound, but you can also get breakfast the way it's done in Honduras, Columbia, El Salvador, Greece and Armenia. Breakfast joints in Hyde Park or SoHo are often well-managed and deep-pocketed, while up on Nebraska, breakfasts tend to be more blue collar, which suits Andy just fine. "I like a place that looks like it's been around the block."
Regardless of the locale, the photos on the blog are not so much photos of the breakfasts being eaten as the children eating them: growing taller, getting first haircuts, ditching diapers.
"The untold secret is that it's a food blog, but on the inside it's a fathering blog," says Andy. "It's a record of my relationship with my kids, a record of some of the good times. I edit out the arguments, mostly."
"We had a crisis earlier this year," recalls Andy. "Marek looks me squarely in the eye and says, 'I don't want to go to breakfast ever again.' He didn't go for a while. (Ivo still went because he wasn't old enough to argue.) I was going to change the business cards and tell him he was fired, but then I had a breakthrough. I asked him if he'd like a hot chocolate and he jumped in the car."
And so the quest continued. They maintain a long list of places yet to try, because as Andy says, there's no shortage of breakfast in the Tampa Bay area, "especially if you like your spoons greasy."
Some of the mission of T.B.B. is character building. The boys order, interact with strangers and pay their bill, often, as Andy points out, out of their dad's line of sight.
"I want my kids to be comfortable in the world. I have a lot more confidence in my kids and in strangers, I guess. My hope is that both of these boys grow up with a sense of politeness, that they understand the way people fall into different roles, and that there are responsibilities on both sides."
The trio occasionally invites Heather along on their Saturday morning outings, but as Andy says, "It changes the dynamic. She moms it up and cuts their food for them. I just give them a fork and a knife and say have a good time."