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Fancy, funky coffee shops dot downtown St. Petersburg's landscape

ST. PETERSBURG — As downtown has morphed from a sleepy backwater to a trendy hot spot, its crop of utilitarian coffee shops has given way to more stylish cafes.

"It used to be we were the only one in the tradition of the coffeehouse," said JoEllen Schilke, owner of the Globe Coffee Lounge. "For a place to have a proper downtown, it needs a lot of coffeehouses."

Downtown is gaining a number and diversity of places to caffeinate and cogitate. Not only are there four Starbucks franchises appealing to the downtown crowd, but a host of independent stores have cropped up, from the Euro-styled Kahwa to hippie-green Local Tea and Coffee.

"We get an eclectic mix of people in here," said Kyle DeStefano, manager of Local, which has a staff all under age 25. "My idea of a cafe is tied to the '60s, more of a conscious conversation."

Local also has organic food, often made from locally grown ingredients. Most shops have food, from pastries to full meals, but the coffee is the lure.

"Coffee is more of a motivator, but it's not biggest in sales," said Schilke, who offers muffins, sandwiches, soups, even beer and wine.

Another of the older stores that emphasizes food is Daily Grind, which Stephanie Gall took over from a coffee-only stop nine years ago in the Plaza Tower Courtyard near BayWalk. The downtown boom helped Gall but has also brought competition.

"I was busy for the construction guys on BayWalk," she said, "but then there was Starbucks and Atlanta Bread and others. Everyone was so excited about the new places, it ate my lunch."

Menus differ and so do clients, but the one commonality is time. In a Type A world, some people long to linger.

"It's a very European thing to do," said Jean Thibault, part of the Kahwa ownership that also has a coffee roasting and wholesale business serving restaurants and even other coffee shops.

Thibault said the coffeehouse culture has evolved. When he and his partners had a similar business in Philadelphia years ago, there were no cafes with outdoor seating. Then one started it and the next thing you know, "everyone's out on the terrace."

Farther west downtown are other coffee spots like Cafe Bohemia, but even Emma's Rose and its English tea fit the bill of the third space to meet or meditate.

"Starbucks is nice, but it's a different atmosphere," said Gabi Ford, the German chef of the tea shop with a feminine bent. "There aren't that many places where women can get together anymore."

Coffee, even fancy coffee, is available almost everywhere now, from tea shops like Emma's to the Paciugo gelato store. Schakolad, a chocolate shop, garners some of the coffee culture in its own way.

"We make the same drinks, like mocchachino, but we use our chocolate," said Tess Lecato, who owns the Schakolad franchise with her husband, Mark. Even her shop gets people who visit for a long sip. "They come in and sit and read the paper. Even families come in together on weekends," she says.

Schilke said coffeehouses survive not so much on coffee or food but on providing a different experience.

"People like to hang out at places that aren't a bar and aren't a restaurant," she said. "We have people who come in and stay for hours and hours, which is fine."

But then the coffee shops of old, with counter seating and a fry cook, were places where people congregated, back when they had more time to do so. That vibe lives on at Central Coffee Shop, which has been pouring joe and serving short order for 33 years.

Paul Swider can be reached at pswider@sptimes.com or 892-2271.

Old-school coffee shop keeps going

John Mangels started Central Coffee Shop when downtown was a shell and ran his old-fashioned lunch-counter business throughout redevelopment. Surrounded by gentrification, he maintained the basics and kept a loyal following. Mangels died Sunday, but the shop goes on.

On Monday, Mangels' three daughters, Nicole, 24, Michelle, 22, and Cassie, 20, were back at their stations serving longtime customers.

"He would have wanted them to be open," said Chris Mangels, John's ex-wife with whom he opened the lunch counter in 1975.

Mangels said her ex-husband had been ill for some time and handed over ownership and daily operation of the shop to his daughters about three years ago. When John Mangels died at age 51, it was expected, she said, but sad nonetheless. Chris Mangels, who no longer works in the shop, was helping her daughters greet well-wishers.

Mangels said some of the customers who came in when the couple started the business still show up, same time, same table, same order.

"It was a downhome mom-and-pop-style place," she said. "It was like a Cheers but in downtown St. Pete."

Like any other day, though, Nicole is at the grill while Michelle and Cassie serve the customers.

Fancy, funky coffee shops dot downtown St. Petersburg's landscape 04/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 10:02am]

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