Midmorning Thursday, Andrea Hildebran stood staring in disbelief at the sign that said one of her favorite places was no more.
The end had come the previous day for Local Coffee+Tea, a downtown St. Petersburg cafe that had been struggling financially, but getting an infusion of enthusiasm from a trio of new operators.
Until Wednesday, that is.
That's when landlord Andy Wallace changed the locks and put Kyle DeStefano, 24, Nathalia Estrada, 25, and Ellen Auger, 26, out of the cafe business.
"We're still processing what has happened,'' Auger said after the cafe had served its last cups of coffee.
"I was looking forward to the events that they were talking about doing,'' said Hildebran, who runs a community garden in Bartlett Park.
The space, which has seen other restaurants come and go, is already being renovated into an Italian restaurant set to open on Nov. 20. Allan Galeano, owner of the new place with business partner Craig Smith, said the spot at 330 First Ave. S is just right for their new Buona Vita restaurant.
"I like quaint small spaces,'' said Galeano, who's an investor in the De Santo Latin American Bistro, which closed recently, and Push Ultra Lounge nightclub in St. Petersburg.
Galeano said the new Italian restaurant will be similar to others he owns in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Park City, Utah, and Mexico.
Meanwhile, DeStefano, Estrada, and Auger are trying to figure out what to do next. About a month ago, the three had been employees at Local Coffee+Tea when its owner abruptly decided to pull out of the business. The friends decided to pool their resources and take over the cafe. Business had picked up since, so the landlord's action was stunning, they said.
"Basically, somebody offered him more money,'' DeStefano said.
He said the friends had been paying $500 a week for the space and had talked with a lawyer about arranging a formal lease. Last weekend they also stocked up on two weeks of supplies, from institutional jars of mayonnaise to rolls of toilet paper and sleeves of coffee cups.
"We didn't fail at what we're doing,'' Auger said.
"Somebody just pulled the rug out from under us.''
Wallace, the landlord, said the friends should not have been surprised by his decision.
"We tried to have the kids run it, but nothing changed. What I wanted was for it to be a place where people in this building wanted to go and people from the Times wanted to go,'' said Wallace, whose office is at 300 First Ave. S.
Furthermore, he said, the coffee shop market is saturated.
Galeano's Buona Vita menu will include spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, and specialties such as smoked salmon ravioli in citrus cream sauce, and lobster ravioli in saffron cream sauce. The restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. It will serve an Italian brunch Sundays and be closed for the evening.
Prices will be moderate, Galeano said, with a glass of wine costing between $5.50 and $6.
"This is a very mom-and-pop thing. We just want to give value for what we serve,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.