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Jeff's new owner adds his Cubans to rich mix

As Teresa Calabrese ate her Cuban sandwich, her 6-year-old son, Trevor, munched on chocolate. Every few minutes, he would stroll over to the dessert racks, eyeing the treats with names such as Sweet Odyssey, the Nuclear Meltdown and, Trevor's personal favorite, the So Good.

"Trevor received a great report card today, and we are celebrating," Teresa Calabrese said. "We haven't been in here for a while, and it's changed a bit, with the Cuban sandwiches and the photo gallery, but they've still got the chocolate, and that's definitely the most important thing."

Things are the same, yet they are indeed different, said Felix Serrano, the new owner of Jeff's Desserts Cafe at 4044 Park St. N.

Serrano, along with his wife, Ellen, purchased the restaurant in September from Maria and Panos Koulouvaris of St. Pete Beach for an undisclosed price.

Although Jeff's Desserts made its mark with its pastries, cakes and other treats ranging in price from $1.75 to $5.50, Maria Koulouvaris said the decision to sell the business was made strictly for family reasons and not because of the economy.

"It has been a successful business, and we know Felix will continue the success," said Koulouvaris, 40, who also operated a Jeff's Desserts on St. Pete Beach until closing it last year. "Our 1-year-old, Katerina, is the light of our lives. We want to have one more baby, and I am taking care of other family, too, so we can't work 18-hour days anymore."

Serrano, 51, plans to spend $100,000 on his new business, including an expansion of the kitchen. He is eager to add his own culinary style to the established restaurant. "Jeff's Desserts has sold sandwiches as well as desserts for 12 years, but I want to add what I know the best, and I know how to make good Cubans," said Serrano, a native of the Dominican Republic whose father hailed from Cuba.

"Around Tampa Bay, there are many different styles of Cuban sandwiches, and what's happened as a result is that the original is destroyed. For authentic Cuban sandwiches, the Swiss cheese has got to be flavored. The pork has to be roasted slowly, and we always need to use imported ham from Spain," said Serrano, who spends about 10 minutes creating each sandwich.

The former computer network manager sees Jeff's Desserts as his way to give to the community. "For a long time, even though I had a good career, I wanted to give back more," he said. "Here, we invite artists to come in and use our space. We are displaying photographs by a student of Eckerd College. We also have open mike night for poets."

An unexpected development for Serrano was the tragic events of Sept. 11. "I literally quit my job at Essilor of America one week before the terrorist attacks, and we actually signed the purchase papers for Jeff's Desserts on Sept. 11. At the beginning of September, when we were getting ready for this, I kept telling my wife that I had a nervous feeling something was going to happen. I thought it would be the stock market crashing. Never did I think it would be an attack in the U.S.," he said.

"People might be staying at home more than going to restaurants right now, but we're able to pay the bills," said Serrano, whose restaurant is open seven days a week. "People need to take a break from worrying and get out of their houses. What's more fun than coming out for apple pie or ice cream? And you know what, I'd do it all over again. Everybody has the little dreams, and this is mine."

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