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Flippers Pizzeria franchisee among flurry of local companies hiring at St. Pete job fair

Employers and job seekers mingle at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg on Monday. Many of the new companies at the fair were clustered in the service sector.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Employers and job seekers mingle at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg on Monday. Many of the new companies at the fair were clustered in the service sector.

ST. PETERSBURG — Gerard Pickhardt, a former aerospace manufacturing executive from Sarasota, is doing his part to spice up Tampa Bay's economy, one new restaurant at a time.

Pickhardt and his wife, Bonnie, bought bay area franchise rights for the Orlando-based Flippers Pizzeria chain, and they plan to open their first location on N Fourth Street in St. Petersburg Dec. 1, followed by a second restaurant in Carrollwood in April and another one six months later at Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.

"We'll open up a minimum of 16 restaurants in this market over the next eight years, most likely 20," said Pickhardt, who was recruiting at a job fair in downtown St. Petersburg on Monday morning for his first three general managers, along with wait staff, kitchen help and drivers. Each restaurant, he said, will employ 25 to 30 workers.

The name of his holding company: WTFG, which stands for Watch These Franchises Grow.

Flippers Pizzeria was among a handful of first-time companies with open positions at the job fair in the Coliseum, hosted quarterly by the Tampa Bay Times. Like the Orlando restaurant chain, many of the newcomers to the fair were clustered in the service sector:

• Thorntons Inc., a Midwestern convenience store/gas station chain, is opening its first Florida location in November in Clearwater and plans to open a total of six locations in the region over the next eight months. Each location will employ 12 to 16 workers.

• Swedish home furnishings icon Ikea was accepting applications for 15 to 20 openings at its Tampa store.

• Beer distributor J.J. Taylor was advertising up to 16 openings, mainly truck drivers and warehouse workers.

• Walt McCann a year ago launched a Bradenton home improvement company called StorPro. He came to St. Petersburg on Monday eager to find someone for sales and someone he can train as an installer to take the company up a notch.

"We've got the recipe," McCann said. "It's time to start baking the cake."

There were also numerous repeat employers among the 60-plus companies at the event, such as Massey Services, Capital One, AFLAC and Mortgage Investors Corp.

But the predominance of jobs in the service sector, health care, tourism and call centers appeared to support a trend troubling Tampa Bay throughout its prolonged economic recovery: Many of the jobs being created pay less than those lost in hard-hit industries such as construction, government and manufacturing.

The way Jason Tarlton sees it, finding a job isn't the toughest problem anymore. It's finding something that gives employees enough hours and pays enough to keep up with rising bills.

Trained as a certified nursing assistant, Tarlton, 31, has steady work on an overnight shift three nights a week but struggles to get more hours.

Among the more than 3,000 people who streamed through the daylong fair was Alfie Grace, 38, who works as a restaurant cook. Grace said he came to check out options because he hasn't received a raise for a long time.

"A lot of people are looking," he said.

Tampa Bay's unemployment rate was unchanged last month at 8.8 percent, down from its recession peak above 12 percent but still far removed from a level below 6 percent that would signify a healthy economy.

Teresa White could personally attest that attending a job fair can pay off. While at a Coliseum job fair two years ago, White got a position at debt consolidation company Stratix Financial Group. On Monday, now in charge of training new workers at the 50-employee firm, she was the one doing the hiring.

"I had been unemployed about eight months before I got this job," White said. "I'm so thankful."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@tampabay.com.

Flippers Pizzeria franchisee among flurry of local companies hiring at St. Pete job fair 09/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012 9:16pm]

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