What does a new crepe shop in Westfield Citrus Park have to do with a mass kidnapping?
Luis Iragorri launched his BannaStrow's chain in Miami after surviving a six-month ordeal being held for ransom in the Colombian jungle by a rebel guerilla army.
Now 52, Iragorri understandably prefers not to talk much about the 1999 nightmare when he and his family were among 120 parishioners rounded up in a Cali church, trucked off and held for ransom.
"There were so many levels of fear starting with the shock of being kidnapped from church in the middle of a city on Sunday morning to having a gun held to my head by a man threatening to kill me in front of my children," he said. "Once I learned my family was safe, I had to survive months in the jungle while they moved us every night from camp to camp."
After his wife, Margarita, made 18 negotiating trips into the jungle, his captors concluded he only owned a couple of fast food burger stores, not the entire chain. Terms are unknown. But after they heard Margarita had denounced them on the TV news, the guerillas threatened to grab him again until asylum in South Florida provided safe haven for a humble fresh start from scratch.
Iragorri set up a food court crepe shop in Miami's International Mall. The appeal: It was simple, inexpensive and had few competitors. When a nearby smoothie kiosk closed, he added a smoothie machine and gourmet Colombian coffee.
Now there are six stores, plus three more here. The food court space that opens this week in Citrus Park will be joined soon by two more in the bay area. The company has also sold franchise rights for up to 104 more.
"When life deals you lemons you have to make lemonade," Iragorri said.
"When I'm having a bad day, I think of what happened to Luis and feel better," said Mauricio Acevedo, chief executive and one his partners in BannaStrow's. The chain is named after a contraction of crepe flavors banana and strawberry.
BannaStrow's treats crepes as more than dessert. They wrap them around meats and other sandwich or pizza makings, fold them into fruit cups or smear them with Thai, Tex-Mex, guava or Neapolitan (tomato, cheese and pesto) sauces. They even serve a hot dog crepe. With a drink, the average meal costs $8.
"Our crepes are a full meal with fewer calories than bread," said Jorge Nickiford, a one-time Exxon brand manager in Central America who owns the Tampa Bay area franchise.
Pretty in pink: After a long struggle, the Betsey Johnson women's apparel chain — best known for its neon pink fashions and wild animal prints — is closing most of its 63 stores including one in International Plaza in Tampa after a bankruptcy liquidation sale. An Andy Warhol and Lou Reed pal, Johnson was once married to John Cale of the rock band Velvet Underground. The over-the-top blond designer at 69 still ends her runway shows with a cartwheel across the stage. Once the stores close, her line will live on at Macy's, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue under ownership of footwear maker Steve Madden.
Signs of the times: Digital signs, which look like a flat screen TV, are popping up everywhere from restaurant menu boards to roadside billboards. Orlando's Sea World got creative with one in a gift shop at its new TurtleTrek attraction. Because 5 percent of the profit from each sale goes to an ocean conservation fund, an animated manatee or sea turtle says "thank you" to each buyer from a digital sign behind the register. A ceiling spotlight shines to honor them as "an everyday hero."
Staff Writer Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.