CLEARWATER — Sophia's Restaurant & Pizza is an unlikely place to inspire devotion.
The fading pasta and grinder joint sits between a custom copier dealer and a boxing gym in a strip center that has lost its polish.
Inside, there's yellow paint and black vinyl booths. Plastic plants and a disco ball hang from the ceiling. On the dingy walls are photos of a meatball sub, a plate of chicken wings, a gyro with Greek salad and fries.
For owner Jeannie Landeros, however, Sophia's is the place where she married. The place where her two young children first walked. With no college degree, she thinks it's her ticket to a better life for her kids.
But Sophia's is gasping for breath in today's economy. Landeros owes more than $8,000 to her landlord, and she has taken a second job, managing a Safety Harbor McDonald's overnight, to save the restaurant.
It may not be enough and Sophia's could be lost, a possibility Landeros can't imagine.
"This is my life," she said. "I don't know who I am without it."
• • •
Landeros started as a server at Sophia's when she was 18. She fell in love with a Mexican immigrant who worked in the kitchen. The two married, bought a house, saved their money.
In 2002, seven years after Landeros began work at Sophia's, she and her husband, Jose, had the $30,000 down payment they needed to buy the restaurant from its original owners.
There were long days with Landeros working the tables and her husband in the kitchen, and within five years they had paid off the remaining $50,000.
Money was tight, but the couple had a future.
Then came the recession and area businesses closed. There were fewer people around to buy lunch at Sophia's, which is on Hercules Avenue. Dinner regulars who had been coming twice a week began coming twice a month.
Jose Landeros wanted to close the restaurant. Too many hours for too little return. Jeannie didn't want to walk away. The dispute strained their marriage; the couple separated in December.
In February, the bank foreclosed on their home. Landeros is still there with her two kids, 3-year-old Francisco, called Paco, and 1-year-old Cristian. She's trying to negotiate with the bank to reduce the mortgage of $831 a month.
She has cut back everywhere at the restaurant and no longer pays a window washer or a knife sharpener. Her delivery man works not for a paycheck but for a room in her house.
Without Jose around, she's both server and cook.
After two months of looking for extra income, in February she got the manager's job at McDonald's, making $9 an hour.
Here's Landeros' schedule: Monday through Saturday she's at Sophia's from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. with her kids. Sunday through Thursday she works at McDonald's from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and a roommate cares for the children.
To eat and pay her most pressing bills, she's taking about $200 a week out of the restaurant. The McDonald's gig pays her around $267 a week.
She sleeps in the mornings between the two jobs, trying for three hours' rest. On Sundays, she tries to catch up on sleep. To keep up the pace, energy drinks help.
Ask Paco why his mother goes to McDonald's at night.
"To save the house," the boy says.
• • •
"I have no money," Landeros, 32, said with a laugh to the mechanic from down the block, "so it's either sex or food. What do you want?"
It was a Tuesday afternoon and the mechanic, a longtime patron, had come by Sophia's to check on her 1995 Plymouth Neon, which had lost its clutch that morning.
"Well, whatever it's easier for you to get rid of," said the mechanic, playing along with the joke. "I'll take either."
That's the kind of talk you find at Sophia's, which will never be confused with a fancy bistro.
The day had begun badly when state inspectors arrived and found cockroaches and other violations. For Landeros, keeping up a cleaning routine had become tough.
The department told her to close, but she let two parties in that afternoon, one a woman alone, the other a group of four diners, as an exterminator got to work in exchange for a meal.
She told the customers that inspectors had found pests, but they didn't appear worried. Landeros had chosen one thing of value over another, her children over the law, and it troubled her.
"Should I? No," Landeros said. "But my kids need to eat."
The following day, she would close the restaurant while the exterminator tried to oust the bugs, not wanting to push her luck. Inspectors returned in the afternoon and found she'd dealt with the pests.
She reopened Thursday.
Off the kitchen is a small air-conditioned room with a crib for Cristian and bed for Paco. There are toys and a television and a fan.
Landeros has no money for child care, so the boys are underfoot. She believes that owning her own business is the only way to produce an income and also care for her kids.
She said having them there bothers her landlord, but the lone woman eating her lunch, a regular who ordered a cheesesteak and fries, didn't seem bothered.
"I like it because it's quiet," said 50-year-old Linda Igel. "It's not a noisy restaurant. It's out of the way."
A property manager for the company that owns Landeros' building, Weaver Enterprises, came by as Igel ate to check out some water damage to a wall.
Landeros said the owners had told her she was done as a tenant and had days to close. In fact, she thinks they called in the inspectors and are unwilling to even consider negotiating a payment plan.
Property manager Bob Burk told a reporter otherwise after checking the water damage. Lots of tenants are struggling, he said, and getting some money is more desirable than having a vacant building.
Burk said he would try to work with Landeros to resolve the debt she owes for lease payments and late fees, but that ultimately if she's unable to pay enough, she'll be gone.
"We've got a responsibility first to the owner of the property," Burk said. "That doesn't mean we don't empathize and don't sympathize."
When some people hear about her situation, Landeros said, they don't understand why she's struggling to keep Sophia's.
They don't see the labor that has gone into the business, she said, or all that it has cost her. They don't realize that as a single mother of two kids, she's unlikely to ever again raise $30,000 to buy a business.
This recession has forced many to abandon their deepest hopes for how their lives will unfold.
"Right now it's still my livelihood," she said. "It's not dead yet."
Will Van Sant can be reached at (727) 445-4166 or [email protected]