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Owners of Safety Harbor's Whistle Stop restaurant say imitation is no flattery

SAFETY HARBOR — Ice cream, wraps, an outdoor deck, guitar music drifting out toward Main Street on the weekends.

For folks who live around here, that sounds like the Whistle Stop Grill and Bar.

But soon it will describe the Safety Harbor Grill, which will open soon — on the same block that houses the Whistle Stop.

The latter's owners are none too pleased. The new format, they say, is too much like theirs.

"Hopefully they won't serve fried green tomatoes,'' said Patrick Pendola who owns the Whistle Stop with his wife Dawn. Fried green tomatoes are their restaurant's signature dish.

Like the Whistle Stop, the Safety Harbor Grill will offer wraps, steak, ice cream, beer and wine.

The prospect of facing off against such a similarly positioned competitor so upsets Dawn Pendola that she could not speak to a reporter and handed the phone to her husband Patrick.

He said his new competitor is trying to steal the musicians who play at the Whistle Stop, saying they will pay them more.

"That's not too cool,'' Pendola said.

Besart Shala is one of the owners of the Safety Harbor Grill. He bristled at the accusation.

"Nobody steal her musicians,'' he said in broken English. "She does not have breakfast. She does not have Greek food. She does not have a lot of items on (our) menu. What she says is not true.''

He said Dawn Pendola has a reputation of getting upset whenever a new restaurant opens in the city and gives the owners a hard time.

"She is afraid she lose business or something,'' he said.

He knows Dawn Pendola because he used to work for her as a cook, but left after a few months. He said they didn't get along.

Matthew McLachlan, Safety Harbor's community development director, wouldn't comment about the Pendola's concerns, saying only "we think competition is healthy.''

He noted that residents, in a 2007 community survey, said they would like more casual dining restaurants in the downtown area.

"We want downtown Safety Harbor to be viewed as a dining destination,'' McLachlan said.

As does Heather Hildick, owner of Heather's Place restaurant just off Main Street, who said she is "ecstatic" about the Safety Harbor Grill opening.

"The more the merrier,'' she said. "Competition is nothing but a good thing for local businesses.''

• • •

A decade ago during the Kosovo War, soldiers pointed machine guns at the Shala family and told them to get out of their home. Stay and die.

Knowing a family of 14 down the street had been wiped out, father, mother and 16 children ended up in a refugee camp for three months, living in 15 foot by 10 foot tents.

Authorities told them they could not stay in Kosovo. Pick a country: the United States, Germany, France, Australia, Denmark, Norway.

They chose the United States and arrived on July 3, 1999.

The extended family arrived wearing nothing but shirts and pants, with flip flops on their feet. They lived in a small home a church rented for them and used food stamps to buy groceries and Medicaid for health care. Kindly neighbors drove them to doctors appointments.

Even though they could barely speak English, the government found jobs for them within two weeks.

Now, almost exactly 10 years later, three of the family members will open the Safety Harbor Grill.

It has a wide wooden deck cooled by swirling ceiling fans. On the outside wall is a mural of a harbor. The inside is still under construction but booths have been installed.

If all goes well, the restaurant at 997 Main St. will open before July 4.

"It's the classic American dream story being realized right here on Main Street,'' McLachlan said.

Merita Shala, 22, Besart Shala, 35, and Burim Shala, 30, have been working on the project for five months, turning a former doctor's office into an indoor/outdoor eatery.

All that's left of the former business is one wall.

The Shalas have installed a full kitchen, four bathrooms and a new roof. The outdoor deck will seat up to 80 people and will feature a bar and an area for bands to set up. There will be room for 50 people inside.

There are 20 parking spaces. Nearby businesses have offered the use of their lots on nights and weekends, to ensure there is plenty of room.

"All the neighbors are nice here,'' said Besart Shala.

The restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. On the menu will be American, Greek and Italian foods including 10 different kinds of pasta, steak, wraps, breakfast burritos, omelettes and ice cream.

Prices will range from $3.25 to $14.

"It won't be expensive,'' said Besart Shala. "I wanted to be good to these people, put nice quality food to give back to these people.''

There will be live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

There wasn't enough money for a full liquor license, so the Shalas will serve beer and wine.

Besart Shala has lots of experience in the restaurant business.

Along with his short stint at the Whistle Stop, he said he has experience as a cook at the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa and at TooJay's at International Plaza in Tampa.

And for four years, the family owned the Belleair Cafe in Clearwater.

Sitting on the deck of their unfinished restaurant this week, Burim and Besart Shala reflected on their life in their homeland.

When the war started, their father was fired from his job at an energy company. Life was miserable. Now, in broken English, Besart Shala said he's "happy too much.''

"Me never dream we can have a business, have a restaurant here,'' he said.

And will his restaurant serve fried green tomatoes?

"Yes,'' he said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Owners of Safety Harbor's Whistle Stop restaurant say imitation is no flattery 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 12:39pm]
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