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Seabreeze by the Bay opens as a food truck in Brandon

BRANDON — By 11 a.m., a line forms at the order counter, and the aroma of fresh seafood wafts out of the bright blue food truck.

Customers are walking down the wooden ramp back to their cars, clutching brown paper bags with grease seeping through the bottom.

And at the lone picnic table in front of the truck, Helen Richards, after finishing a meeting with a potential fish supplier, is making last-minute calls on her iPhone before the lunch rush.

"Seafood is our family's past, present and hopefully our future," she said.

Richards and her four children, 13 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren are bringing back a Tampa tradition.

The iconic Seabreeze by the Bay restaurant, famous for its devil crabs, reopened at its new location Monday in a vacant lot at U.S. 301 and Causeway Boulevard.

The restaurant first set up shop in 1926 at the foot of the Causeway Bridge by what is now the Port of Tampa. Richards and her late husband, Robert, bought Seabreeze by the Bay from the original owners in 1992. They had run the nearby bait shop and fish market since 1968, and went to the restaurant for their first date in 1953, Richards said.

They sold the restaurant in 2000, and it closed soon after.

After Robert died in March, one of the Richardses' sons, Keith, decided he wanted to reopen the restaurant to honor his memory.

"My dad worked his whole life to leave us something," Keith said. "That's where this came from."

The Seabreeze is in its seventh incarnation, and this time, it's mobile.

They plan on taking it to the Florida State Fair and the Strawberry Festival, Richards said. That is, if they can get it away from all their regular customers for a few days.

During the first two days they were open for business, there was no shortage of patrons.

The parking lot filled by lunchtime, and a line of people wove down the wooden ramps to the order counter.

Mark Walker of Brandon was just driving by Monday afternoon when he spotted the truck and recognized the Seabreeze logo. He and his family used to go to the restaurant when he was young.

He pulled into the lot and bought one of Helen's cookbooks, which include all the traditional Seabreeze recipes.

"I was driving by and turned around," he said. "I haven't had a devil crab like they have it here since they left."

• • •

Richards, who sat at the table out front signing the cookbooks and highlighting her favorite recipes, said she ordered two big packages of romaine lettuce for the Monday crowd and had to order more by Tuesday afternoon.

Although the new Seabreeze is on wheels and in a new location, everything else is still the same, the family insists.

"It was so important to (my husband) to carry on the traditions," Helen said. "We've been in the seafood business all our lives. My husband's nickname was Capt. Seaweed."

Timo Limas, who cooked at the restaurant for 25 years, is the head chef at the new location.

The 2-foot-tall wooden statue of a boat captain that used to hold the "Please wait to be seated" sign at the restaurant — Capt. Seaweed, Richards calls him — is propped up at the bottom of the ramp leading to the truck.

The same Seabreeze logo is painted on the side of the truck, along with an undersea mural that was painted by the son of the man who painted the original restaurant, Richards said.

"Everything here has a connection," she said.

• • •

The Seabreeze's connection to the community remains strong despite its absence. Richards recently appeared on the Tampa Natives Show (tampanativesshow.com), a locally produced cable show that celebrates Tampa's history. Co-host Mario Núñez vividly recalls going to the Seabreeze as a child and watching movies across the street at the Auto-Park Drive-In Theatre.

"There were several restaurants in Tampa that were synonymous with the time," said Núñez, whose show airs at 7 p.m. Thursdays on Verizon Ch. 30, Bright House Ch. 950 and Comcast Ch. 20.

"If you lived in West Tampa, you went to Mirabella's on Dale Mabry and Gray Street, but every now and then you took a road trip, a field trip to the Seabreeze on the 22nd Avenue Causeway because you knew they had the devil crabs.

"If you asked 10 people, nine will tell you that's what they remember the most — the devil crabs. … We were saddened when we saw they had closed their business and we were equally excited about their reincarnation."

• • •

Only the famous "love rock," the rose-colored slab of quartz that sat behind the original restaurant, is missing.

Couples got married at the rock, and Richards swears "miracles" happened there all the time. If a couple kissed near the rock, Richards said, they were destined to be together forever.

She sold the love rock with the restaurant to International Ship Repair, and suspects it is sitting in someone's yard somewhere.

Richards, who is supposed to be retired, says she can't help but be involved with this new restaurant.

"I'm the grease," she said. "I'm the one that makes everything run smooth. You can't cook good without the grease."

• • •

Richards' favorite items on the menu are the devil crabs and the homemade Cuban toast.

In her cookbook, the recipe for Cuban bread calls for Crisco oil, but Richards is quick to tell everyone to use lard instead. She has sold about 30,000 of the books since 2002, with plans to release it again soon.

In the book, she includes stories and letters that former customers sent to her about the Seabreeze.

"Everybody has special memories," she said. "Everybody who has been to the Seabreeze has a story to tell you."

She is excited that her children want to carry on her and her husband's tradition of fresh Florida seafood served up restaurant style, she said.

"I feel very proud," Richards said, looking over at the truck from her perch out front. "Extremely proud."

Seabreeze by the Bay opens as a food truck in Brandon 11/01/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 2, 2012 10:54am]
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