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Tomato pickers' protest impacts deli, says owner

Ted Kelly of Mott & Hester Deli says he lost business when a tomato pickers coalition protested at a Publix on Dale Mabry.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Ted Kelly of Mott & Hester Deli says he lost business when a tomato pickers coalition protested at a Publix on Dale Mabry.

PALMA CEIA — The sandwich shop is not a fussy place. It sits on the least visible side of a strip mall and doesn't face busy Dale Mabry Highway.

The deli began because owner Ted Kelly wanted to own his own business, not because of any food epiphany.

It was named the Mott & Hester Deli after the Tampa native saw a street corner in New York that he liked — nothing more profound than that.

And over 29 years, the deli at 1155 S Dale Mabry became a South Tampa mainstay. Regulars ordered their favorite specialty sandwiches, had their own tables and went behind the counter for refills.

But Saturday, this deli that had existed in peace for years ended up on the backside of a giant protest it never saw coming.

That morning, Kelly, 53, watched truckloads of people drive into the strip mall. He initially thought it was a construction crew but soon learned the equipment was for a soundstage.

They wore green shirts and carried tomato-shaped signs: "Penny More Per Pound Publix," "People Before Profit" and "Justice for Tomato Pickers."

It was part of a five-day Florida farmworker protest that converged at the Publix at 1313 S Dale Mabry Highway, across from Mott & Hester. The protesters marched against Publix's decision not to pay a penny-a-pound premium for tomatoes. The money would have been added to tomato field workers' paychecks. (Publix has said the growers' employers should be responsible for wages, not the stores.)

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers obtained a city permit that allowed protesters to occupy public space in front of the deli.

Kelly said their trucks blocked entrances and impeded customers. He feels the city should have notified him beforehand and he is frustrated because he says police didn't clear the private strip mall of protesters.

An organizer, Kelly said, told him that morning that marchers would fill his deli with business. But Kelly said they never came other than to use the restroom. He said he earned half the sales of a normal Saturday.

"It was way worse than any of the days we've had with the hurricanes going seven or eight years back," he said.

Both city and police officials said they had received no complaints until the Times relayed Kelly's comments. Santiago Corrada, Tampa's cultural arts administrator, said the city requires permit holders such as the coalition to notify the area of special events.

"Perhaps they didn't go across the street," Corrada said. "The police department really did try and placate some people out there because, in fact, some people hadn't been notified."

A coalition spokeswoman could not be reached for comment this week.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said protecting protesters and nearby businesses is a balancing act.

"This group had a permit and our No. 1 goal was to make sure they had a safe environment but also have minimum blockage of traffic on Dale Mabry Highway," she said. "We do everything in our power to try and not have a business impacted, but unfortunately that's not always possible when a group exercises free speech."

Not all sandwich sellers complained. At Quiznos, in the same strip mall, business boomed by 30 percent, manager Amit Patel said.

"No one wanted to come in here," Kelly maintained. "The bottom line is if you have a cause, don't be callous to the people you impact with your cause."

The atmosphere at Mott & Hester had returned to normal early this week with diners choosing between Whitey's Tuna Salad, Caroline's Caprese salad or the best-selling Wild Turkey sandwich with sauteed mushrooms.

As for the tomatoes on his sandwiches, Kelly only knows that they come from a produce company.

"I don't know where it comes from," he said. "They can come picket me."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Tomato pickers' protest impacts deli, says owner 03/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 3:31am]
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