Folks around Seminole Heights will soon be able to eat Asian-inspired food with the spirit of the King.
Nicko’s Fine Foods , one of the last standing classic American-style diners in Tampa Bay and the spot where Elvis Presley ate after his 1956 concert in Tampa, is finally set to re-open as the Chop Chop Shop.
Co-owner and operator Steve Sera said the process of acquiring and moving into the iconic Seminole Heights space — less than two miles south of his current location — felt more like a job interview than a property deal.
"The process to get the place wasn’t just as simple as buying it," Sera said. "The owner came to our shop, ate our food, and did his research on who we are and where we come from. He was hesitant to see an Asian restaurant, or a quick-food restaurant for that matter, in the space."
But Sera said Chop Chop Shop’s down-to-earth vibe and accessibility won property owner Mark Hamburg over in the end.
"I think we got it because of the fact that we make good food that’s affordable and accessible to the public," Sera said. "We’re also a family-owned restaurant and we really bring out that family vibe in what we do."
Sera said the Chop Chop Shop will make a few changes to its menu and atmosphere due in part to the size of the new space, at 4603 N Florida Ave. Both parking and seating will increase, it will offer table and busing service, and within a few months it plans to offer beer, it announced on Facebook.
Sera was hesitant to provide an actual opening day with interior work progressing, but he is targeting the first weekend of October.
Steve and his wife, Olivia, started off operated a food truck serving Asian-inspired rice bowls around Tampa, and in June 2017 rented a small spot at 6605 N Florida Ave. with six parking spaces. In its current space, Steve said, the Chop Chop Shop has been operating at full capacity for the past year.
"That’s been one of the biggest problems we’ve run into," Steve said. "We’re operating at capacity at our current shop and we just need more room."
At first, Steve didn’t think that he’d be able to convince the property owner to turn the classic trailer diner — which closed in December — into a quick Asian kitchen. But after seeing a few pop-up shops fail to utilize the space and a "for sale" sign in front, he decided to take a chance and rent that location.
So far the transition has been smooth, Steve said. He’s been able to refashion the interior to meld with the distinct Chop Chop Shop look while paying homage to the original design.
A distinct nostalgia permeates Nicko’s Fine Foods. It originally opened as Ayres Diner, a 24-hour diner spot where Presley sat and ordered his favorite snack, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, in 1951. Presley reportedly returned to the diner multiple times, and in 1956 the owners latched on to this and installed a plaque on the King’s booth. Steve said he would keep the plaque intact and respect the location’s history.
"It’s going to be a little weird walking into an Asian restaurant and seeing an Elvis booth. But my father loved Elvis, I grew up with Elvis records around the house, and while it seems kind of weird, I’m down with it," Steve said. "The landlord didn’t ask us to do that, I just wanted to do it. It’s part of the history of the place."
The diner trailer itself was made in New Jersey and transported to the Tampa Bay area as part of a series of Ayres Diners that have all since closed and been knocked down. The diner was purchased in the 1960s and renamed Nicko’s.
After more than 60 years, the prior owners of Nicko’s Fine Foods had to shut down in December 2017.
Steve is excited to open in their new space but will continue to rent their original location with the hopes of establishing a smaller, more specialized restaurant. He said the new kitchen space will allow them to have a lot more fun with their menu, adding specialty items and bringing back menu options from the past.
"We have a few surprises for the people who have been eating with us from the beginning," Steve said. "For a long time I’ve been talking about doing specialty menu options, but we were so limited in space. The size of the kitchen in this new place is literally the size of our entire restaurant currently."