SPRING HILL — Not far from Chick-fil-A and Wendy's and Arby's, and Texas Roadhouse and Perkins and Chili's, and Outback and IHOP and Applebee's and Hooters, another sign has risen along the commercial scrum of Commercial Way:
GRECCO'S RESTAURANT AND DELI
Before lunch on Tuesday, a crowd of locals gathered beneath the sign, shepherded by Betty Erhard, a cheery brunet from the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, that collective of capitalist camaraderie. She had fetched from her trunk giant wooden scissors for this ceremony, that timeless and oft-overlooked acknowledgement of entrepreneurship, newness, optimism: the ribbon cutting.
We need one, don't we, to balance the barrage of bankruptcies and bailouts? They're harder to come by these days.
"I'd like to say thank you and welcome to Grecco's Restaurant and Deli," she told the crowd in the gravel parking lot, which included at least one well-dressed but unemployed woman there to network. "Please welcome Steve Grecco!"
She escorted the group inside and passed the novelty scissors to Grecco, a short 75-year-old wearing glasses and a Bluetooth. Waitresses held either end of a long red ribbon while Grecco began the honors.
"I'm going to take three pictures," Erhard said. "So on the count of three, pull the ribbon and cut!
"One, two …"
• • •
Steve Grecco was born on Broome Street in Little Italy in 1934, during the last great economic crisis. He played stickball in the street and paid 2 cents for hot pizza and sometimes rode the train without telling his mother. His father was a tailor, and the boy learned early that hard work pays 75 cents an hour.
He made his living in Bergen County, N.J., as an electrical contractor, waking every day at 3:30 a.m., a mental alarm clock beckoning.
After 57 years of electrical work, after fathering 10 children who gave him 22 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, after buying and then selling 150 homing pigeons and a few race horses, Grecco followed that great diaspora to the Land of Sunshine, to Spring Hill, to retirement.
Problem 1: He continued to wake at 3:30 a.m.
Problem 2: He was bored.
"I just wanted something to do," said Grecco.
"He has to stay busy," said his wife, Grace.
So, against the backdrop of constriction and foreclosure, he leased this small brick and stucco shop and entered a world entirely unfamiliar.
He stocked the pantry (Sam's Club). He put hours on the door (7 a.m. — 2 p.m.). He crafted a loose menu ("If you don't see it, ask for it.").
He invited friends one morning to taste-test 10 types of coffee.
He hired Tommy Nicoletti, a gregarious 39-year-old former trashman from Long Island who makes a mean eggplant parm.
"Which reminds me," Nicoletti said. "We need more eggplant."
Then came the customers: mailmen, retirees, landscapers, fishing captains, plumbers, Hernando County's Finest.
John Voelker, 65, says he would rather eat breakfast at Grecco's than at home.
Grecco's timing could not be worse. This he admits.
• • •
"Make sure I get everyone in there," said the woman from the chamber as Grecco's small staff gathered. "Allrighty, everyone look this way! Great big smiles!"
Erhard snapped photos. The people cheered. All the pomp in Spring Hill spilled out in Grecco's Restaurant as the oblivious sped by on Commercial Way.
Holding the giant scissors was a man who has discovered that there is a market for two eggs, toast and coffee for $1.99, that boredom is worse than failure, that 75 is but a number, and when a man stops working, he stops living.
The ribbon fell away.
David Gardner, a University of Florida journalism student, contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8650.