For almost a year, A&N Italian Pork Store and Deli has watched its business dwindle. Gone is the lunchtime crowd that ordered thick deli sandwiches. Gone too, the Saturday crowd that bought homemade sausage and delicacies of Southern Italian cuisine.
All that Nunziata "Nancy" Pisani Bowers — known to her customers as "Momma" — sees now is machinery, hard hats and road construction in front of Allen's Creek Shopping Center on U.S. 19.
"We've lost 40 percent of our walk-in business," said Bowers, who came to America from Italy at the age of 16. "I've had this deli for almost 28 years. People miss the entrance and don't want to make U-turns. No one walks by. We're the only business left in this shopping center, and we want to stay open."
Part of the problem is pedestrians can't stroll up to the deli just south of Belleair Road. The sidewalk is closed. Construction and traffic congestion keeps potential customers away. Repeat customers had issues too when the main entrance was closed and a smaller one appeared at the vacant end of the shopping center.
"We had a beach customer call in a large order," Bowers said. "She drove by, then made a U-turn and missed the opening again. She went home and called. We had to make arrangements for a delivery."
Road construction mishaps have also caused problems. On March 14, crews hit a water main while digging. Water flooded the parking lot, but none flowed from the faucets.
"That rupture happened early in the morning," said Tim Brooker, 17, of Indian Rocks Beach, a homeschooled student who works part time behind the counter. "Around 11:30, during our lunch business, water was shut off."
'We're losing business'
Bowers' nephew, Mario Pierluca, in charge of sales and marketing, has worked at the deli for 10 years. He's been handling construction issues, besides trying to drum up business.
When customers complained about missing the new entrance, having to make U-turns and backtrack, Pierluca called Joseph Blasewitz, senior project manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is working on the reconstruction of U.S. 19 through Clearwater.
"I told him the blue sign they put up was minuscule," Pierluca said. "People are concentrating on traffic flow changes, accidents and lane closures. They can't see where to turn in. We're losing business."
According to Pierluca, Blasewitz tried to help. He immediately came out to speak with Pierluca and had an electronic sign installed. Blasewitz and his crew also patronize the deli for lunch when they can, Pierluca said, but those sales cannot make up for the roughly $15,000 the deli says it has lost.
"We acknowledge that challenges on our part during construction have created challenges for this deli. We really appreciate that they've been more than patient," said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
"We placed a message board as a temporary solution, because the driveway is a bit farther down. We're hoping it will direct people in," she said. "The parking lot was also partially damaged with the water main break, and we've told the contractor they have to have it restored within two weeks."
But A&N isn't the only business affected by the road work.
"Construction and the economy have both taken away business," said April Groth, manager of Citrus Country Groves, who has worked at the store for 32 years. "Sometimes people say they miss the turn. With the construction, it's (Belleair and U.S. 19) become a dangerous intersection."
For 11 years, Jacqueline Ayyub has owned Mediterranean Food and Gift Market. She says she wakes up every morning worried about what will happen to her shop on U.S. 19.
"I'm scared that when this bridge (overpass) is done, I will lose all my business," Ayyub said. "When cars drive over, who will see my store? This is my dream. I have worked hard to make it happen. What has taken a lifetime to build can be lost through no fault of my own."
According to the FDOT, the construction project will remove traffic lights on U.S. 19 between Whitney Road and State Road 60. They will be replaced with two new interchanges at Belleair Road and Seville Boulevard to create signal-free travel from 49th Street to Sunset Point Road. Frontage roads will be added to provide access to local businesses.
Right now, catering orders keep the A&N Deli afloat, but Bowers isn't sure how long she can stay open. She knows if she can get customers in the door, they'll see the cases of Boar's Head meats and crusty Italian bread, and smell the sauces cooking.
"We know it can be painful going through the whole construction process," said Carson of the FDOT. "We're trying everything we can to help."
Meanwhile, "Momma" will continue to cook and prepare for the long lines of customers she believes will return.