When the owner of a downtown cafe abruptly announced last week that he was pulling out of the business, his three employees decided it was time to pool their knowledge, talents and moxie to save the struggling operation.
Their plan is to transform Local Coffee+Tea, at 330 First Ave. S, into a bustling cafe with evening entertainment. In addition to dine-in and carry-out offerings, they plan to expand their bicycle delivery service.
But for Kyle DeStefano, 24, Nathalia Estrada, 25, and Ellen Auger, 26, their dreams are still at the chrysalis stage.
It was just last Thursday that Michael Duranko, who has owned the cafe for about 18 months, gave them the stunning news that he could no longer carry its financial burden. The friends immediately began discussing ways to make the business their own.
"We are going to attempt to run it, the three of us, as owners and operators, baristas and cooks,'' DeStefano said.
"I'm really excited about it,'' said Auger, who moved from Savannah, Ga., six months ago.
"It definitely has a lot of possibilities for the three of us. We want to bring in beer and wine and make it community-oriented. We want to do a jazz night, a game night, open mike night. We want to start featuring bands on weekends and also make our clientele more diverse.''
Duranko said he wants to help his employees with their new venture.
"I'll help with the transition. I can't carry the overhead,'' said Duranko, 43, who owns similar coffee shops in Sarasota.
"The economy is very difficult. It's a tough time," he said. "If you look around St. Petersburg, there are a lot of businesses that are struggling. The revenue isn't increasing at the same pace as the bills are increasing.
"During the summer, sales had picked up, but it's a race against time. The hardest thing for me is that we have a great group of people that work there that care about the place and care about the customers.''
The coffee shop off Fourth Street S features indoor seating as well as dining in a shaded courtyard and at roadside tables and chairs. Its menu features vegan, vegetarian and organic fare, as well as specialty coffees and teas.
Under its new owners, the place might get a new name, but much of its offerings will remain the same, including two soups a day and fresh pastries, Auger said. The emphasis will be on local produce, she said.
Duranko said he is working with the landlord to help his employees succeed. "We're still working out the details. I fully expect the place to continue in some shape or form.''
Landlord Andy Wallace isn't as sure. The space rents for $3,000 a month, he said. "I'm hopeful that all of a sudden they can pay me something at the end of the week and show me in good faith that they can keep it going,'' he said.
"I have a wait-and-see attitude. People either need to get behind it and support it, or they wouldn't be able to make it. Michael just sort of took off and he just said, 'Here's the equipment. I'm leaving it with you.' So these people have everything there. If they can make it there with what's there, then more power to them.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.