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NOLA Cafe a bit of New Orleans in Hyde Park

Louis Robert Jr. opened NOLA Cafe on W Platt Street in 2004. Signature items include cafe au lait and beignets. Also on the menu are favorites such as crawfish etouffee and jambalaya.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Louis Robert Jr. opened NOLA Cafe on W Platt Street in 2004. Signature items include cafe au lait and beignets. Also on the menu are favorites such as crawfish etouffee and jambalaya.

Louis Robert Jr. fondly remembers growing up in New Orleans.

His insurance claims manager father, stay-at-home mother, and two younger sisters made for a close-knit bunch, a trait that was uniform throughout his extended family, as well.

His Italian grandfather, a pharmacist, owned a store in the famed Louisiana city and bought four lots in the same neighborhood, two on one side of the street, two on the other.

He and Robert's grandmother built a home on one lot, and each of their daughters' families — including Robert's parents — built on the remaining lots.

The result was that Robert (pronounced row-BEAR) grew up surrounded by family. His relatives — aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents — were also his neighbors.

Of his childhood, Robert says, "With 40 or so kids in the neighborhood, it was just a ball!"

Growing up in an Italian family, food was an integral part of Robert's life. "I learned how to cook scrambled eggs before I knew how to ride a bike,"

he says.

Today, he's using those skills as owner of NOLA (short for New Orleans, La.) Cafe, patterned after the historic Morning Call Coffee Stand in New Orleans, which sits next door to a newsstand. In similar fashion, NOLA Cafe offers local daily papers, popular magazines and paperback books.

The journey to Tampa occurred more than 20 years ago. Robert earned a degree in marketing from Southeastern Louisiana University in 1985. He and a college friend in search of adventure contemplated striking out on their own in a different city. The choice was between Atlanta and Tampa. They flipped a coin, and Tampa won. Thirty days later, they moved. Robert has been here ever since.

His first job was as a waiter at the Claiborne, a New Orleans-style restaurant formerly on Howard Avenue where Whiskey Park SoHo was also previously located. Having no intention of building a career in the hospitality industry at the time, Robert took a position in the insurance and investment business after about five months. He then started his own investment and insurance business in 2000.

His career choice served him well for a time. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The stock market and interest rates dropped. While Robert did not want to leave his business entirely, he did want to seek out other opportunities.

Having lived in Tampa for about 15 years at the time, Robert had met a lot of people who also moved from New Orleans. He ultimately decided his new venture would involve bringing the authentic tastes of his beloved hometown to Tampa.

In June 2004, he opened NOLA Cafe on West Platt Street in South Tampa.

Robert is passionate about the cafe's authenticity.

"I love their cafe au lait," said customer Martha Chamberlain. "Since the first time I visited New Orleans, I've loved it. When I want a cafe au lait, NOLA is where I go."

According to Robert, it is made with the Baton Rouge-produced Community Coffee, "a chicory coffee done with a cold brew."

Other signature menu items include New Orleans' famed Cafe Du Monde-style beignets.

With a fondness for the Cajun and creole flavors of Robert's hometown, his coffee shop also offers "NOLA favorites" including crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, and shrimp creole.

Today, Robert spends most of his time at NOLA and says he may open a second location.

He gets home to his native New Orleans about every six months. There, his parents still live in the house where he was raised, and his younger sisters now also own homes in the neighborhood.

They are raising their children in the same manner that Robert grew up: surrounded by a neighborhood of family.

>>fast facts

Louis F. Robert Jr.

Age: 44

Neighborhood: Ridgewood Park

Owns: NOLA Cafe, 301 W Platt St.

Family: Daughter Elisha, 15 years old.

Hero: His father, who Robert says is a "good father, great husband."

Hobby: Collecting watches, from Swatch to Vacheron Constantin. "Every kind, all kinds. Even when I was a kid, I always enjoyed the artwork and history from some of the old manufacturers."

NOLA Cafe a bit of New Orleans in Hyde Park 03/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 3:31pm]
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