ST. PETERSBURG — A longtime owner of the popular Leverock's seafood restaurants, John Stross was a savvy and hardworking businessman.
But away from the onion-crusted salmon and the crabmeat-stuffed tilapia, he was active in charitable causes. He was a philanthropist who devoted time and resources to Tampa Bay area causes such as veterans, sick children, the mentally challenged, the deaf and survivors of domestic violence.
Mr. Stross, 71, died of pneumonia on Saturday.
"I once said to him, 'Dad, you spend as much time on charity work as you do on your own business,' " said his son, Jason Stross. "What drove him was that he was just such a successful entrepreneur. He'd say, 'Look how well off we are. Look at all the people in need out there.'
"He just really enjoyed helping people."
At its peak in the 1990s, Leverock's was a beloved Tampa Bay institution with a dozen locations from Jacksonville to Fort Myers. Now there are two.
More than 50 years ago, Johnny Leverock won an oyster bed in a card game. Thus he started Leverock's Oyster Bar, a seafood joint in a former gas station in Pinellas Park.
After Johnny Leverock died, the place was struggling when Mr. Stross and a business partner bought it from the Leverock family in 1981. Mr. Stross and various partners built it into one of the largest locally owned, sit-down restaurant operations in Tampa Bay. The chain specialized in fresh fish at moderate prices.
In 2000, the partners sold the chain to a group of investors, but the new owners went bankrupt by 2004. Leverock's disappeared except for one franchise in Charlotte County.
In 2006, Mr. Stross and a partner, George Lewis, opened a new Leverock's in South Pasadena, where it remains to this day. This year, they also took over management of the well-known Friendly Fisherman restaurant on John's Pass in Madeira Beach.
"You couldn't have asked for a better business partner," said Lewis, his partner since 1987. "He was a generous man. He really cared about people."
In recent years Mr. Stross had lived in the Signature Place high-rise condominium in downtown St. Petersburg, but he and his fiancee, Jo Brower, had recently moved into a house in the Snell Isle neighborhood.
Once, in the 1990s, he took a speaking course and thought domestic violence might be a good subject for his first speech. He met with Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse.
"I not only got my material for the speech, I decided I wanted to get involved with CASA and do what I could do to help women and children suffering this often violent life," Mr. Stross once said in an interview.
Before long, he was chairman of CASA's board of trustees. He was also a board member and donor for the Children's Dream Fund, the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children, the Deaf and Hearing Connection of Tampa Bay, and the Louise Graham Regeneration Center. He was a trustee and a docent at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
He and his fiancee started a nonprofit called Remember, Honor, Support Inc., which benefits wounded soldiers, first responders and their families.
"In addition to the love he felt for his family and endless philanthropic involvements, I think of his wisdom," said his daughter, Jenna Cibran. "Even as an adult, I still leaned on my dad. If ever in need of a suggestion of how to handle a situation, without hesitation, he had the perfect response — never at a loss."
A memorial service is tentatively planned for Friday afternoon at Pasadena Community Church. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Remember, Honor, Support Inc., P.O. Box 1073, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; remember honorsupport.org.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.