As the economy sputters along, it's typical for new restaurants and bars to struggle to build a customer base.
Not so for some new eateries in Seminole Heights, where instant loyalty seems almost a given.
"Normally a new restaurant opens and they're trying to pull people in," said Melissa Deming, co-owner of Ella's Americana Folk Art Café, which opened last month to enthusiastic crowds at 5119 N Nebraska Ave.
At Ella's, she said, "It's been all word of mouth. It (flew through the neighborhood."
Ella's is the first of several new restaurants planned for Seminole Heights, whose residents for years have yearned for a solid lineup of locally owned spots to grab a bite or a drink. The success of Bungalow Bistro and Cappy's Pizza inspired a fresh group of investors looking to capitalize on neighborhood enthusiasm.
Next up is the Independent, which is expected to open its doors today in a converted gas station at 5016 N Florida Ave. Owners John and Veronica Vellines, whose original Independent is a popular tavern in downtown St. Petersburg, have been planning the second location in Seminole Heights for more than a year.
Renovations on the 1935 building began in July and were handled by a contractor, landscape architect and landscaper all hired from the neighborhood, Veronica Vellines said. Like Ella's, the Independent has staffed its pub with local residents.
Handcrafted beer and wine are the hallmark of the Independent, but the Seminole Heights location will offer a fuller menu than the one in St. Petersburg. The 2,300-square-foot building will house a main bar area, a separate dining room and a third space that the Vellines hope to turn into a small coffee shop that will be open during the day. Dogs will be welcome on the patio outside.
Area residents are "champing at the bit," Vellines said. "I get e-mails all the time."
If the Independent's debut goes anything like Ella's, expect a packed house this weekend.
Deming and her fiance, Ernie Locke, had been planning Ella's since purchasing the Nebraska Avenue property in 2006. After spending nearly two years trying to figure out how to update the original building, they decided to tear down and build anew.
The 4,000-square-foot building is home to Deming's extensive folk art collection, a hobby inspired by her grandmother, Ella. The restaurant opened Sept. 11 with a menu designed by Locke that is "basic American fare," Deming said, with an eclectic mix of fresh fish, pastas, salads, pizzas, burgers and appetizers.
Deming imagines Ella's as a neighborhood gathering spot, with art shows once a month, live music on the weekends and outdoor seating that is dog-friendly.
More local hangouts are on the way. John Obediente purchased the former auto and truck service shop at 512 E Hillsborough Ave. last year and is renovating it to make room for his Spanish tapas restaurant Sangria's. Myoumi Sushi Bar and LeRoy's Gastro Pub will also be housed in the same building.
The project is progressing slowly, Obediente said, but all three restaurant plans are still in place. He declined to predict when the building may be finished.
"I'm not quite sure," he said. "I've learned my lesson. Until I see the furniture moving in, I'm not going to have a date."
Deming can relate to the delays. But the end result was worth the frustration, she said.
"We're happy to get our doors open and see people eating and enjoying themselves," she said. "It was a long time coming, but it's like there's a wave washing over the neighborhood. Change is happening."