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With fall comes the return of Farmer John's

Teachers and bus drivers have thankfully taken over the daytime care of our children.

Soon, we'll get to see Bucs and Gators football highlights whenever we switch on the television. The relentless pace of lawn mowing and weeding will start to ease.

And, if we can't look forward to gorgeous displays of red and yellow foliage, we at least won't have to risk searing a retina when we walk across the parking lot.

What I'm saying is, fall is coming.

And, along with these welcome signs of changing seasons in a state where seasons tend to run together, I bring you one more:

Farmer John's Key West Cafe on E Jefferson Street in Brooksville will reopen Tuesday after a summer hiatus.

A tradition carried over from John and Donna Carlone's original Farmer John's Pancake House, the end-of-summer reopenings stir memories of digging into omelets after youth soccer games and before hunting trips.

It means we can look forward to mornings cool enough that customers drape fleece jackets over the backs of their chairs and wrap their hands around hot cups of coffee.

Not that everything is the same.

The cafe, which opened a year ago, has a South Florida rather than a rustic theme: silhouettes of palm trees on the blinds, a wind chime that imitates a steel drum.

Also, the Carlones once knew that lines of customers would appear as soon as they returned.

Now, they're not so sure.

"I've been through two oil embargoes. I've been through the (savings and loan) crisis. But I've never seen anything quite like this,'' said John Carlone, 73, a South Florida native who has been in the restaurant business for decades.

By the time his cafe closed in May, Carlone said, high gas prices had thinned the ranks of customers willing to drive from Hudson or Inverness. Climbing food prices cut into his profits. His most committed regulars showed up once a week rather than two or three times.

"It's scary,'' he said.

You don't have to be in the business to see this. I bet, recently, you've had that spooky sensation of walking into a formerly popular restaurant and found it as empty as an elective calculus class.

Or, maybe you haven't even been out to eat lately, because that's what happens when money gets tight: Restaurant meals go from being part of the routine to a break from it.

So, the establishments that make it through these tough times will be ones that offer food and an atmosphere we can't duplicate at home, and the sight of people working hard to make others happy, which (we secretly feel) is what we always have to do.

Carlone knows this. He has sent out 467 mailers announcing the reopening — either messages in plastic bottles or postcards featuring his staffers relaxing at the beach. He's held his prices steady and crammed even more items onto his menu, including a sloppy joe omelet that was once a popular special.

Along with many other worthy restaurants in Hernando County, I think Farmer John's will last.

I sure hope so. Because without it, life around here would feel even more like an endless summer.

And, no matter what Hollywood once tried to tell us, we know how awful that would be.

With fall comes the return of Farmer John's 08/21/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 3:11pm]
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