INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Xavier de Marchi sat outside Café de Paris bakery recently, drinking his morning coffee and greeting seasonal customers he hasn't seen since last winter.
"Welcome back. How are you?" he said. He knows them all by name.
It could be the last time he sees them, or his bakery for that matter, because the French baker must soon sell his last tuiles and croissants and move back to France.
Seven years ago, de Marchi bought the bakery when he saw it for sale during a family vacation in Tampa. He brought his family to the United States on a five-year investment visa and later received a two-year extension. Their latest application was denied by U.S. Embassy officials in Paris, who gave them 90 days to leave the country.
Come March 3, de Marchi and his wife, Valerie, and their son, a junior at Seminole High School, are to be living in France again.
They had 90 days to sell the bakery, their house and car. But de Marchi, who calls himself a fighter with the French Revolution in his blood, has not thought about that yet.
"We'll do everything we can to stay," he said. "There's no Plan B for right now. We are focusing on Plan A."
The plan means keeping the bakery, whatever the cost. A banner hangs outside the storefront, urging people to stop in and sign a petition to help the de Marchis keep their visas. Letters of support from area mayors and patrons are taped to the storefront window and door. To date they have gathered almost 4,000 petition signatures from an online petition and binder inside the store.
William Flynn, an immigration lawyer working on the de Marchis' case, enclosed the petitions and letters with their new filings to the embassy. Because they already have been denied, there are considerable challenges to overturning the decision.
The bad economy had been good for de Marchi's business selling $2 to $3 pastries made from scratch. He earned around $150,000 in 2009, which was his best since he opened in 2003.
But it's not good enough for U.S. Embassy officials, who sent him a vague letter explaining his visa was denied because the bakery isn't making enough money.
"We have no numbers, they gave us no scale to reach," Valerie de Marchi said.
According to local immigration lawyers, the threshold for "enough" is discretionary and determined on a case-by-case basis. E-2 visas are granted to businesses that will benefit the economy through future investments.
Though de Marchi hopes to expand his bakery, he and his lawyer believe the current store is beneficial to both the local economy and community.
"We hold the position that he qualifies as he is now," Flynn said.
Richard Fracasso of Largo visits the bakery every morning for coffee and a pastry. When he heard about de Marchi's situation, he and a group of five regular patrons hung the banner and helped him find a lawyer.
"It's kind of ridiculous," Fracasso said. "You have someone playing by the rules at no cost to the state. They're making money off his taxes. Especially now with the problems economically you'd think they'd want someone paying taxes and creating jobs."
The de Marchis expects to hear from the embassy within the next month, after their bakery is temporarily shuttered. If they are denied again, all they can do is re-apply.
"There's two ways to feel," de Marchi said. "You shoot yourself or you fight. To fight in America is very expensive. I don't want to think pessimistically. I think everything will pay off."