SOUTH TAMPA — The decadent Alpine cake and the crisp Monte Cristo and buttery Beef Martini sandwiches draw fans from all over to South Tampa's landmark Wright's Gourmet House.
To accommodate them all, the building at the corner of S Dale Mabry Highway and Watrous Avenue has grown piece by piece with add-ons and reconfigurations like a game of Tetris.
But popularity brings problems: Cars parking on road shoulders, across the street in a strip mall and in spaces that are technically illegal by city standards.
"When you have food like Wright's has, people find a way to get here," said Kendall Almerico, 47, a customer of two decades. "That's why you see people parked all over."
That could change soon.
A City Council vote last week moved forward Wright's plan to tear down a house the business owns behind the restaurant and install a 40-space parking lot. The "special use" permit was controversial, coming after Wright's erected an outdoor sign urging supporters to visit "wrightsparking.com" and hours of testimony from both sides. The council will review the plan during a second reading on June 24.
Neighbors fear the lot will diminish their property values and say expanded parking will disrupt their peaceful community.
They think about being awakened at 4 a.m. to the deli's early morning employees pulling into parking spaces and slamming car doors near their bedroom windows.
"It's right behind my house," said William Martin, 87, who has lived on Palma Ceia Court for 22 years. "How would you like it?"
Martin and others had hoped that Wright's would shuffle buildings on its current property to create space or expand to lots north or south, closer to Dale Mabry. But owners of those lots don't want to sell their land, deli owner Jeffrey Mount said.
"Nothing against Jeffrey — a nice guy — but this is home turf," said Sherri Terrana, 51, who lives on Sterling Avenue. "Wright's is a landmark, an institution. I don't want to see it go anywhere but I think there's other alternatives."
Mount's grandparents started Wright's in 1963, and the deli and catering service has been growing ever since. He knows his business relies on its "our family to yours" reputation that was cultivated by being a good neighbor with great food.
"My job now is to demonstrate to everybody that we will come up with something that everyone can be proud of and comfortable with," Mount said.
To alleviate concerns, early design plans call for a bigger buffer between the lot and adjacent homes, including more 18- to 21-foot-tall magnolia trees than are legally required.
The expansion could add more parking spaces to Wright's inventory over time, although not initially. Design plans show the new lot would have 82 parking spaces, compared with 84 spaces currently.
That's because 42 spaces along Watrous do not conform with city regulations and were "grandfathered" by the city years ago after regulations changed, Mount said.
The new parking lot would erase those spaces and allow Wright's to meet current city standards, which would also open the business up for large-scale renovation projects in the future. The city wanted Mount to correct the grandfathered parking spaces before it would allow other projects at the facility, he said.
Someday, Mount envisions Wright's lunch-counter cafe transforming into something like Mazzaro's Italian Market in St. Petersburg, which combines a deli, cafe, wine cellar and restaurant under one roof like a charming indoor Italian street.
But for now, Mount said, he just wants to fix the parking situation, appease neighbors and get back to business.
"This isn't fun for me," he said. "I'm in the cake business. I deal with happy."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.