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Downtown Brooksville boosters, cafe owners fight through tough financial times

Lisa and John Callea — with their daughter Jessica, 4 — own Rising Sun Cafe in Brooksville. Dwindling business has left them struggling to stay afloat.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Lisa and John Callea — with their daughter Jessica, 4 — own Rising Sun Cafe in Brooksville. Dwindling business has left them struggling to stay afloat.

BROOKSVILLE — It's a little after 9 o'clock in the morning, and business is beginning to bustle inside the Rising Sun Cafe.

A group of older men ambles in to take their places at a table near the front, where they've gathered weekly for years. Behind the counter, Cheyenne Sellers readies a frothy cappuccino for a customer who is looking at the collection of paintings by local artists on the wall.

For the past nine years, the establishment — tucked behind a rustic, brick-walled storefront on Main Street in downtown Brooksville — has seemed to many to be the ideal image of what a thriving downtown bistro should look like. But owners John and Lisa Callea admit that, lately, that's not been the case. Financial woes have put the future of the cafe in doubt, they say, and while they are endeavoring to find a way to hang on, they're not sure they can.

Recent expenses, including a looming $12,000 tax bill, have severely cut into the restaurant's ability to make ends meet. And while the Calleas say their plight isn't unlike that of many other downtown business owners dealing with a still-struggling local economy, much of it boils down to a lack of traffic coming through the door.

"We have good days and not-so-good days, like everyone, but it's been very difficult lately," John Callea said. "We've always been a cash and not a credit business, and that limits what we're able to do. We pray all the time that we'll find a solution. We certainly don't want to close something we've worked so hard to build."

Devoutly Christian, the couple adhere to a strict personal code of conduct. Neither takes a salary through the business, preferring instead to pay their rent, utilities, employees and suppliers first so that they can remain debt free. However, running the business so close to the bone means they have had to forgo many needed improvements and repairs.

"If we get through a week without something breaking, it's a good thing," Lisa Callea said. "But it can be tough to run a business like that. You worry a lot."

Many in Brooksville praise the Calleas' efforts over the years in trying to better the downtown community. In addition to overseeing the Love Your Neighbor homeless outreach ministry, which provides food and clothing for the city's needy, they have been active in helping to lure more people to visit downtown businesses.

In addition to supporting a weekly farmers market and the monthly Market on Main Street event, they have organized community events such as Hot Summer Nights and were early advocates of the Florida Blueberry Festival. In addition, Lisa Callea served five years as president of the Brooksville Business Alliance, until the group folded two months ago.

"They are fantastic people, and they have done so much to energize the business community through the years," said Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn, who is a friend of the couple. "Seeing them having to face difficult times somehow doesn't seem fair to me."

Opened in 2004, the Rising Sun was heralded as a welcome addition to a new wave of downtown businesses that arrived on the heels of the real estate boom. A Brooksville native, Lisa Callea said she and her former business partner, Sallie Rice, sought to keep the bistro unpretentious and low key. Local artists, crafters and small businesses were welcomed to display and sell their work inside the cafe.

Shortly before marrying her husband in 2006, Lisa launched Love Your Neighbor, a ministry affiliated with New Beginnings in Tampa, and based it in the back of the restaurant. The outreach not only offers weekly dinners to the city's homeless population; many of its clients have found work at the restaurant.

The Calleas say that, for now, they are still exploring options they hope will allow them to keep the establishment open, including finding a suitable business partner.

"We're at a crossroads right now," Lisa Callea said. "We're praying for guidance and waiting for what God wants us to do. If that means we stay with our business, we will be happy to stay."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

Downtown Brooksville boosters, cafe owners fight through tough financial times 06/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 7:11pm]
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