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Tea shop is Tampa corner's fifth business in five years

“We’re different,” says Eric Starr, co-owner of the Hooker Tea Co. on S Howard Avenue. “We’re a destination.”

LUIS SANTANA | Times

“We’re different,” says Eric Starr, co-owner of the Hooker Tea Co. on S Howard Avenue. “We’re a destination.”

SOHO — The Hooker Tea Co. opens soon at Howard Avenue and Platt Street.

Please wish them luck.

The site at 223 S Howard Ave. in Tampa has become a revolving door for restaurants with big, but brief, aspirations.

The tea shop is the fifth business in five years to take a stab at the seemingly great location on the edge of SoHo. Each came in determined to break the location's cursed status but, for various reasons, failed miserably.

The tea purveyors from St. Petersburg aren't worried in the least and consider the highly visible address a boon for gaining business. Rather than a sit-down restaurant, Hooker Tea is more of a retail business for selling and sipping tea.

"We're different,'' said co-owner Eric Starr, whose mother runs the St. Petersburg location. "We're a destination. If you want loose tea, you come here.''

The store is expected to open next week. The opening had been slightly delayed because the owners were waiting for all the tea to arrive.

Unlike the store's predecessors, it will cater to local tea drinkers and SoHo visitors looking for a more subdued party experience. In addition to 80 kinds of loose-leaf tea, the store will sell beer and wine, wraps, quiches and other light fare. Initially, it plans to be open from 8 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m.

The concept may have a better chance of success because it doesn't rely on late-night liquor sales. The site can sell beer and wine only until 11 p.m., a limitation that proved difficult for the prior restaurant, Bric, landlord Tommy Ortiz said.

He blames past failures more on management and wet-zoning issues than on the address itself. "I love the site. I would never give it up,'' Ortiz said. "I just think that the right concept hasn't been able to stick.''

Hooker Tea, he said, brings something new and different to the SoHo scene.

Here's a rundown of past businesses on the site, starting with the most recent.

Bric: Opened in April, this restaurant closed not long after the paint dried. Tony Bellanca, a third-generation Tampa native, promised dishes true to Tampa's eclectic's culinary tastes but lost his investors when he couldn't stay open past 11 p.m.

Strings N Rings Cafe: Closed in November 2007 after less than a year and a half of serving shoestring fries and haystack-cut onion rings. At the time, owner Alan Smolar said the poor economy coupled with a city-mandated early closing time forced him to walk away with not so warm feelings toward Tampa. "That was the love of my life," he said. "But I just couldn't keep it going."

Jilly Jo's: This cafe lasted a mere four months. Owner Kathy Wiley, who came from the advertising business, planned wraps, sandwiches, paninis, soups and salads. She figured the location was a no-brainer, based on her comment after opening in September 2005: "If I can't make it on SoHo, I must be a real idiot."

Mary Z Tampania Cafe: Served rice and beans and other traditional Tampa Latin cuisine. It opened in January 2005 after a series of delays, mostly involving parking and handicapped access issues. It shuttered a few months later to change the menu, but owner Robert Velasco soon after decided to pull the plug.

Prior to restaurants, the address housed the Dennis Yankus photography studio for years.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com.

Tea shop is Tampa corner's fifth business in five years 10/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 4:30am]
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