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Founder of Tampa's La Teresita dead at 82

Maximino Capdevila, 82, founder of Capdevila’s at La Teresita Restaurant, died Sunday. A native of western Cuba, he moved with his family to Florida in 1962. His influence helped shape west Tampa’s development.

Capdevila family photo

Maximino Capdevila, 82, founder of Capdevila’s at La Teresita Restaurant, died Sunday. A native of western Cuba, he moved with his family to Florida in 1962. His influence helped shape west Tampa’s development.

TAMPA — As many in Cuba celebrated the rise of Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, Maximino Capdevila grew concerned.

So he brought his wife and four sons to Tampa.

Mr. Capdevila established the La Teresita Grocery, which later turned into a tiny restaurant.

Today, Capdevila's at La Teresita is the site of two spacious restaurants, a bakery and a catering business that serves as many as 60,000 customers a month.

It became a touchstone of Tampa's Latino community and beyond — a mandatory stop for stumping politicians, Tampa movers and shakers, and those just looking for good Cuban food at a reasonable price.

At least four Florida governors and a sitting U.S. president have made appearances at La Teresita. It has been featured on national television, including NBC's Today and the Food Network.

Mr. Capdevila, the patriarch of a 38-year family business that community leaders credit with improving West Tampa, died Sunday after several years of heart trouble. He was 82.

Besides the restaurants on W Columbus Drive, Mr. Capdevila owned numerous properties encompassing at least two city blocks — a part of town that had been declining in the 1970s, said Bob Martinez, the former Tampa mayor and Florida governor.

"He was one of those anchors that got in there and really stabilized that area," Martinez said.

Rose Ferlita, a Hillsborough County commissioner in west Tampa who has known the Capdevilas for decades, agreed.

"If you followed it over the years, it wasn't noticeable because it was so gradual," Ferlita said. "But little by little by little, they expanded their presence there."

Whenever Mr. Capdevila entered his restaurant, he shook hands with customers who were waiting, then greeted each of his employees with a warm smile.

Once seated, customers often got more arroz con pollo than they could eat, along with a beef "ropa" more tender than it looks. La Teresita has attracted a breakfast crowd since the grocery store began serving food.

"It's affordable, it's in large quantity and it's open very late. Those are qualities of service you don't find anymore," said former St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman, who once brought celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to La Teresita to "show him a real place that was pure Tampa."

Mr. Capdevila was born in a sugar-cane community in western Cuba. He left school after the seventh grade and worked for a retail outlet similar to Sam's Club. He married Coralia Perez in 1953 and acquired his own grocery warehouse.

After Castro came to power, Mr. Capdevila felt his business no longer belonged to him.

He loaded his family onto a plane in 1962 and flew to Tampa. After a decade at Acme Plating Co., Mr. Capdevila opened La Teresita Grocery in 1972.

The couple worked long hours — 16 hours a day, every day, for years. Their sons worked, too. Coralia Capdevila turned off the grocery store lights at 11 p.m., said Luis Capdevila, 52, their son.

"But if somebody knocked on the window, we opened it up," he said. "They saw it as an obligation to the community. If they closed one day a week, they felt like they were letting the customers down."

The store began serving cafe con leche and sandwiches. Demand grew, so Mr. Capdevila bought a service station across the street and created a separate coffee shop there. La Teresita added more home cooking to the menu out of recipes passed down from Coralia's ancestors.

In 1993, the family opened the restaurant at its current location at 3246 W Columbus Drive and called it Capdevila's at La Teresita. The site includes the main restaurant, an adjacent cafe that is open all night on weekends, a banquet hall and a bakery.

Crowds kept coming. Glamor had increased, even if some felt the intimacy of the smaller restaurant was lost. Politicians regarded La Teresita as a place to be seen. Al Gore, John Kerry and Mitt Romney all put in appearances, as did President George W. Bush.

In the 1990s, the restaurant began to branch out. Four franchises opened, along with a fast-food experiment that lasted six months.

Mr. Capdevila returned twice to Cuba, in 1979 and 1995.

He endured heartache with the deaths of two sons, each at age 48. Jorge died in 2004 of a hemorrhage; Maximino Jr. died in 2009, of complications from diabetes.

Hampered by a weakened heart valve, Mr. Capdevila worked from home the last five years. Of the franchises, only the one in Pinellas Park is still open.

"We found that when we ran it, we were very successful," Luis Capdevila said. "When somebody else ran it, we had problems."

The personal stamp Mr. Capdevila impressed on his family remains in their approach to business.

"It was a place where people went and exchanged ideas, and even do now," said Ferlita. "It was a landmark in west Tampa because to him, it was more than a business. It was a life. That business was Maximino and Maximino was that business."

Times staff writer Lee Logan and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story.

.BIOGRAPHY

Maximino Capdevila

Born: Dec. 20, 1928

Died: Dec. 26, 2010

Survivors: wife Coralia; sons Luis "L.A." and his wife, Anita, and Albert and his wife, Cheri; brothers Juan and Orlando; sisters Vella de la Rosa, Cuki Runco and Caridad Blanco; 11 grandchildren; five great-grandchildren.

Service: 9:30 a.m. Friday; Bethel Assembly of God, 1510 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa.

Founder of Tampa's La Teresita dead at 82 12/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 11:09pm]

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