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Smitty's pulling up stakes 29 years later

(ran PC edition)

When the family-run restaurant closes in November, an auto parts store is expected to take its place in Land O'Lakes.

Goodbye steaks, hello brakes.

Smitty's Restaurant, serving beef, biscuits and bacon in Land O'Lakes for 29 years, is expected to close in November, shrinking by one the community's already slim choice of restaurants.

A Napa Auto Parts, the fourth major auto parts store in Land O'Lakes, is expected to take the restaurant's place at 3911 Land O'Lakes Blvd.

Smitty's owners, Darrell and Cheryl Croteau, signed the contract to sell the property in February. The deal is expected to close in November.

Cheryl Croteau, 38, in the restaurant business since her father, Bobby Smith, opened the first Smitty's in 1970, admits to being whipped by the daily grind of cooking, managing, bookkeeping and cleaning.

"I'm tired of it, man," she said. "I have three kids, and I'd like to raise them myself. When you have a restaurant, you don't have a life."

But for many of the hundreds who eat at Smitty's each day, the looming closing promises to be as jolting as if someone snatched a fork from their mouths.

For Smitty's, whose motto is "A little taste of country," is one of the last of its kind. Family run. Home-style food not tested in some distant corporate kitchen. Blissfully free of synthetic restaurant "themes."

The coffee mugs don't match. Some bear the logos of SouthTrust and other corporations. Others, stenciled with flowers, look like castoffs from someone's cupboard.

A cereal bowl near the cash register contains tiny Bibles for the taking. Old saws and antique bottles decorate the walls, as does a Japanese battle flag captured in World War II by Cheryl's grandfather.

"Everybody hates to see it go," said Smitty's regular Norma Kaniarz, two sausage-gravy-covered biscuits steaming on her plate. "It's a place to get a cup of coffee and chew the fat."

Kaniarz has been going to the restaurant for 20 years and eats dinner there nearly every night. But with the new auto parts store there will be no more inexpensive prime rib, meatloaf and country-fried steak.

"I think we've got too many of those right now," Kaniarz said, gesturing toward a new Discount Auto Parts just one building over from Smitty's. "I'd rather it be another restaurant here."

Like Kaniarz, many of the regulars are retirees who rely on Smitty's for cheap food and easy socializing. If a regular customer fails to show up, waitresses will sometimes phone the house to make sure he's okay.

"There aren't that many places like this left _ family places," said customer Ron Kinney, digging into a plate of fried eggs, bacon and grits with his wife, Katherina.

On a recent morning, sometime between the breakfast and lunch shift, two waitresses juggle the orders.

A female customer, a regular, walks in.

"Get that car fixed yet?" waitress Jan Turner asks.

"Yeah," the woman says.

She orders two breakfasts to go, "Smitty's Deluxes," consisting of pancakes, eggs and side dishes.

Soon two construction workers stroll through the door, one carrying a power tool he'd like to recharge while he eats. No sweat. Waitress Candy Browning points them to a table near an outlet.

"It's been a real fun place to work," Turner said. "It's local. It's not governed by franchise rules and regulations. It's a dying breed."

The first incarnation of Smitty's, at U.S. 41 and State Road 54, opened in 1970. Owner Bobby Smith moved the restaurant to its current location in 1986, before selling it to his daughter and son-in-law in 1988.

"He reached the magic number 65 and he said, "See ya.' " Cheryl Croteau said.

Smith also used to run the former Smitty's Chicken and Deli in Turtle Lakes Plaza on State Road 54. He sold that several years ago, too.

Cheryl said she plans to work out of her home, selling Mary Kaye Cosmetics. Darrell Croteau will stay in restaurant management. He has already landed a job with the Salvation Army's dining service.

But Cheryl Croteau said she'll miss her customers, some of whom come two or three times a day, if only for coffee.

"I feel bad for them," Croteau said. "But not bad enough to stay."

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