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Tragedy can't dim dream of restaurateur

It's been nearly 11 years since I first met Doug Wagner, a 16-year-oldDunedin High School junior lying in a Mease Hospital bed, trying to get used to the frightening idea of starting life over as a quadriplegic.

He had been severely injured in an auto accident two months earlier that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He was a passenger in a car that was hit by a speeding driver.

I had lunch this week with Doug Wagner, now a 27-year-old entrepreneur, sitting in a wheelchair and quietly enjoying the brisk traffic streaming into his brand new restaurant and speaking with authority about incorporation papers and payrolls and taxes.

Doug and his brother, Steve, 24, opened the first Blimpie restaurant in Clearwater on Saturday. The franchise restaurant features salads and hot and cold sandwiches, including the traditional 6-foot-long submarine sandwich. Doug handles the business side of the operation, often working on his computer at home, while Steve, a former Largo police officer, runs the seven-days-a-week restaurant operation.

They incorporated as The Lexington Group because the family home, where Doug still lives with his mother, Bonnie, is on Lexington Drive in Dunedin. Doug said he and his neighborhood friends called themselves The Lexington Gang when they were growing up.

"It's scary going into business for the first time," Doug admitted, but said he's excited about the prospects of his first venture. The restaurant appears to have three built-in advantages.

It's on busy Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, it shares a strip shopping center with a Blockbuster Video store and it's one block east of Clearwater High School, where Doug already has done some advertising in the school newspaper.

Doug said they like the proximity to Clearwater High because "we're still a couple of kids ourselves."

He said he's "always wanted to go in some kind of business," and finally got Steve to accompany him last fall to a franchise trade show in Tampa. That's where they learned about Blimpie, a 25-year-old chain with 380 outlets in 17 states.

Blimpie moved into the Jacksonville and Orlando areas about three years ago, but is new to the Tampa Bay area with four outlets just opened - Doug's and Steve's in Clearwater, one on Main Street in Dunedin and two in Tampa. Plans are to open 60 Blimpie restaurants in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties within three years.

Doug said many of their initial customers are from the New York and Atlanta areas where there are a lot of Blimpie outlets. "I was afraid I'd never see a Blimpie again," they tell Doug and Steve.

Doug plans to continue working as a senior systems analyst, or computer programer, at the Jack Eckerd Corporation. He has worked there for 6 1/2 years following graduation from a computer programers course at the Abilities Rehabilitation Center.

His mother, who works in Seminole, drops off Doug at his job in the morning and picks him up in the afternoon. Now, instead of heading right for home, they have to stop first to check out their restaurant almost every day. He said his mom can't sit still and usually will pick up a cloth and start wiping tables.

Working in the family operation are Steve; his wife, Kris; her sister, Erika Kiener; and Erika's boyfriend, John Pagliari, plus one other full-time employee.

One of the columns I wrote about Doug in 1979 quoted from a letter he had received from a Dunedin woman, who told him "how much I admire your determination and desire to get on with life."

I hope she reads here how well he is doing just that.