PLANT CITY — Chancy's Catfish Shack lies all by itself off Interstate 4, a cozy respite surrounded by trees dripping Spanish moss. Signs by the cash register establish the ground rules when you walk in: "NO debit/credit cards — cash or check only."
Meeting friends at Chancy's? Your group will be seated once everyone in your party has arrived and not before.
The signs are reminiscent of the restaurant's co-founder, Evelyn Chancy, as is the hospitality. She guided herself by the old ways and standards, and never saw a reason to change.
Mrs. Chancy started the restaurant 20 years ago with her husband, Marshal. She was his right arm, sometimes as an enforcer of his rules, other times as a softening influence. She balanced the needs of her husband, customers and employees the way a waitress balances several plates on her wrists.
"Mrs. C," as she was known to regulars, a lifelong resident of Plant City who believed in the power of prayer, died March 13, after months of declining health. She was 83.
"She'd always say, 'Everything will be all right, everything will be all right," said Melinda Cothron, a former employee and current owner, smoking a cigarette at one of the picnic tables out back. What that meant, Cothron thinks, was that "if you pray enough, you will get what you want."
As she spoke, five feral cats lurked nearby. Cothron adopted them after she took over the restaurant and had them spayed or neutered.
When Mrs. C was running the show, she greeted customers with a smile and a "How're you doing?"
Just like family.
She led them to tables with bright and varied tablecloths and country-style oak chairs. Chancy's serves small-town charm and plenty of fried food — fried okra, fried green tomatoes, fried gator and mullet, and, of course, fried catfish.
You can wet your barbecue whistle here, too. A rack of baby back ribs runs $14.95.
For her part, Mrs. C enjoyed four or five fried oysters — no sauce, no lemon — and a glass of red wine.
She could be tough on her family of employees, and once searched Cothron as she was leaving the restaurant.
"She said, 'I want to see what you're taking home with you,' " said Cothron, 58. "But she never stopped smiling when she did it.
"That was the beginning of the trust."
Ruth Evelyn Roberts was born in Plant City. She taught her younger siblings the ABCs and numbers before they went to school. She worked for years as a telephone operator, where she displayed a phenomenal ability to remember names.
She married Marshal Chancy, a banker and farmer who believed right is right, a man known to rake the ground in search of a dropped quarter.
But he adored his wife.
"You have no idea how she's calmed him down over these years," Cothron said.
Her faith helped her weather tragedies, including the loss of both sons. Jay Chancy was electrocuted while in his 20s in a freak accident, Cothron said.
In 2004, according to sheriff's reports, an intruder entered the couple's home at 4:45 a.m. and stole several items. The intruder also struck Mr. and Mrs. Chancy.
Wayne Chancy, Mrs. Chancy's other son and a longtime presence at the restaurant, died in February at 58 after a string of health problems.
Mrs. Chancy kept the faith, and her smile.
In recent years, she and Marshal sat on the restaurant's back porch holding hands and stealing the occasional kiss.
Sometimes employees worried about Mrs. C falling on the plank walkway out back. They reached out to steady her.
"It's all right," Mrs. C replied with a wave. "I'm just doing the Chancy Shuffle."
Then she put one foot in front of the other, arms balancing at her sides, and wobbled to the plastic chair next to her husband's.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]