Maria Gorter immigrated to America 30 years ago from Greece with barely a word of English on her tongue.
She landed in Houston, trapped in a stifling marriage, unable to drive. To earn a few dollars, she pedaled her bicycle around her neighborhood, selling caftans she sewed from colorful bolts of Greek fabric. When she answered a "help wanted" ad for a cashier's job at the neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts, the manager hired her on the spot. She told Gorter she liked her personality.
"She said, "There's something about you _ you're going to become successful,' " recalls Gorter, who further surprised her boss by conversing with the diverse clientele in Spanish, Arabic, Italian and French.
Now 60, Gorter owns Mar-Go Interiors, a home interiors company in a shell-pink building on State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel. Its merrily crowded aisles brim with beaded lamps and golf-club tables and sculptural rattan chairs with built-in storage drawers. Customers can browse thousands of swatches of wallpaper and flooring samples, even kitchen cabinets.
"Anything in a home, anything _ and we have the staff to (handle) it," Gorter says, her Greek accent still heavy as velvet brocade. In the back room, she shows off her specialty: handmade draperies in textured fabrics and colors such as aquamarine, sage and gold. Here, a small troop of employees make bedspreads and throw pillows, cornices and valances.
"I understand fabric, I know how it works, what it will do," explains Gorter, who plied her living for years selling draperies for Burdine's.
That position, along with the stint in the doughnut shop, comprise a long list of unlikely jobs she's held over the decades on her journey to entrepreneurship.
She recounts waiting tables at Shoney's Big Boy, the downtown Tampa Holiday Inn, and at Maria's Deli, the small restaurant she owned for a few years near the Tampa Theatre. Even getting to Florida from Texas was an ordeal. Picture her in 1978, leaving behind a failed marriage, piling her two children into her metallic blue Chevy Impala and pointing it toward Tampa.
On a hunch.
"I had heard there were Greeks in Tarpon Springs, and I wanted to see for myself," she recalls. "But I had never driven on the highways. Before I left my husband, I learned to drive secretly. I didn't have much experience. It took me days to get here."
Gorter settled in Tampa, became active at St. John's Greek Orthodox Church in Hyde Park.
Always fascinated with decorating, fabrics and sewing, she enrolled in interior design classes at Hillsborough Community College, dreaming of someday owning a home interiors business.
When she finally did build her own store, she chose Wesley Chapel because of the tremendous population growth.
"I could see when I was selling draperies and going into client's homes what was happening," she says. "I hear this is the second fastest growing ZIP code in the country." Now, she and her second husband John Gorter, 61, live in a 1,600-square-foot condominium in Saddlebrook. They bought it for about $110,000 in 2002 after selling their lakefront home in Carrollwood Village to raise the money to build Mar-Go Interiors.
Their condo's a cozy space, a decorator's home with snappy plaid wing chairs, a decorative marble fireplace (that Gorter brought with her) and sumptuous draperies. But there's also a deeply personal aura about it.
Her motto is spelled out right on her Web site, something she repeats in conversation, a mantra she knows by heart: "A house is made of wood and beams, a home is built of love and dreams."
On the walls hang pictures of sun-bleached homes overlooking the Aegean Sea, Greek Orthodox icons and old photographs. In one picture, Gorter is 4 and on a picnic outing with her parents in Athens. She holds a pottery water jug because, she says, "there was no such thing as a Thermos" in that time and place.
"We found a copy of that same jug at a flea market a few years ago," John Gorter says. "Isn't that amazing?"
He likes to joke that he married his wife for a lifetime of her free home cooking. It's true in a way. They met when he came into her restaurant as a customer.
"She is a wonderful cook, a fabulous cook," he says of her spanikopita (spinach pie) and slow-cooked chicken in creamy tomato sauce.
The former Mercedes salesman suffered a stroke in his 50s and had to sell his transmission business in Zephyrhills. At 60, he still walks with a cane.
Maria says that's one reason she so desperately wants her own business to succeed. They broke ground for Mar-Go Interiors in September 2001, an effort supported by a few sympathetic bank loan officers and a lot of enthusiasm.
The business is her dream _ a real American dream. On a busy road in Wesley Chapel. "Now I'm doing what I really know how to do," she says. "And that's the best."