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Family expands produce business from booth to building

LEALMAN — The white tarp offered scant defense against the blistering sun, but Boaulien Keovongsa's energy hadn't flagged after hours at her produce stand at the Mustang Flea Market in Pinellas Park.

A potential customer picked through a bag of shrimp. Another pondered a bag of clams. What's the price, she wanted to know. Twenty-five dollars, said Keovongsa, her utilitarian apron incongruous against a glittery purple blouse.

This Park Boulevard flea market is where Keovongsa has made a living for herself and family for over 20 years. She and her late husband were new Southeast Asian refugees when they began. Recently, the petite 58-year-old woman and her eldest son took another step toward achieving the family's American dream.

With her backing, Vincent Keovongsa, 37, has taken a major part of the business indoors, into a modest building in Lealman, at 4633 28th St. N. They've named it the 28th Street Fresh Market.

One recent morning, a display of fresh coconuts, husks intact, greeted shoppers at the entrance. Vincent Keovongsa offered to chop the end off one of the tropical fruits so a visitor could get a thirst-quenching drink. At $1.99, it held promises of an inexpensive, exotic beverage.

Inside, trays of papayas, mangoes, and longans joined displays of limes, lemons, fresh ginger and garlic. Seafood cases showed off wild domestic cod and catch from the Gulf of Mexico, including mullet, grouper and snapper. Blue crabs covered with burlap lay quietly in a box set on ice. Shrimp — colossal at $5.99 a pound, large for $2.99 and medium, $1.99 — also awaited buyers along with spring roll skins and packets of dry shiitake mushrooms.

Keovongsa, who carries gift items from Thailand and is licensed to rent U-Haul trucks, says he's steadily increasing inventory and hopes to add a line of shelf-stable groceries.

The Seminole resident spoke of other plans. He wants to sell parking lot space to small vendors, from those offering barbecue ribs to lemonade to T-shirts, for an outdoor weekend market. Rent is $8 a day.

The father of four said business picks up on weekends at the store that is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call ahead and he'll steam your crabs or shrimp, he said. Soon there will be sushi.

One recent Friday afternoon, Keovongsa donned a blue glove to grab dozens of crabs for Thien Nguyen, president of Microwave Communications Laboratories in St. Petersburg, and his wife, Tina. The couple said they were shopping for themselves and their employees. They left with three dozen crabs and 20 pounds of longans.

Her son believes they've picked the right spot for their fresh market.

Ray Neri, head of the Lealman Community Association, and his wife, Laura, couldn't agree more. He said he knows of at least two other fresh markets in the area that are doing well. They offer good products at reasonable prices in an area where residents are not affluent, he said.

Laura Neri said she and her friends are always on the lookout for high quality fresh produce. "I think people are more aware of trying to eat better,'' she said.

The Keovongsa family arrived in the United States in the late 1970s after escaping from Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand. Sponsored by a Lutheran family, they traveled from Thailand to Kentucky and a year later moved to Florida.

"My dad's friend had mentioned to him that the fishing is good here and gardening is good in Florida," Vincent Keovongsa said.

He and three of his siblings were born in Laos, while a fifth child was born in Kentucky. After they moved to Pinellas County, his father, Khamla, a welder and machinist who died in 2005, held a full time job during the week and sold produce and seafood at the flea market on weekends.

His parents started their stand with a couple of 5-gallon buckets of seafood and a 4- by 8-foot sheet of plywood. Their hard work helped to send their five children to private school, said Keovongsa, a graduate of Clearwater Central Christian School.

"I got here based on all their hard work and the knowledge they taught me,'' he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727)892-2283.

If you go

28th Street

Fresh Market

4633 28 St. N, St. Petersburg. Call (727) 329-8791.

Family expands produce business from booth to building 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 2:33pm]
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