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Storm blows business into the few that stayed open

Storm or no storm, some necessary commerce goes on: selling gas, serving food and catering to hotel guests. But in at least one case, business as usual upset one worker's mother.

Tia Noto thought she would have the day off from work Sunday. But about 1 p.m. the 24-year-old Tampa resident got a call from her boss at Hooters in St. Petersburg telling her to come in for work.

Her mother, Diana Noto of Hudson, was incensed.

"All over the news you hear, "Don't leave your home. Stay inside. Do not drive.' If she worked in a hospital and was a nurse, I could see why she would need to be there," Noto said. "But who's going to be at Hooters right now?"

Hooters restaurant manager Connie Romito said no one was forced to work. "We gave everyone the option," she said. "We said, "If you don't feel comfortable, don't come in.' "

The Hooters in St. Petersburg though wasn't the only place open in the gusting 75 mph winds. While many people stayed in their homes, some ventured out to watch football, buy gas or dine in at a restaurant.

"We stayed open because a lot of other places weren't," said Bhupendra Singh, an employee at Fred's Super Texaco Service on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg. "We've been real busy _ we've sold out of all the milk and bread."

The storm certainly left its mark outside the Extra Inning Ballpark Cafe in St. Petersburg, where two massive tree branches sat on the sidewalk.

But inside, customers had one thing on their mind: football.

Despite the nasty weather, the sports bar opened at 6 p.m. to accommodate Bucs fans and the rest of the Sunday night football crowd.

Chuck Russell came to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Miami Dolphins on one of the bar's big-screen TVs. Normally, he watches games on DirecTV in the comfort of his Gulfport home, but the storm left him with bad reception.

"It's good for business," said Stacey Walker, assistant to the bar's general manager. "We're known to be open, so we're open."

Many residents were grateful for the businesses, especially restaurants, that opened during the storm.

For their second wedding anniversary, Leslie and Rob Meyer of New York planned a sunny Florida getaway that included days at Busch Gardens, Sea World and Discovery Cove.

But there they were Sunday, lamenting an anniversary spoiler named Jeanne as they tried to enjoy dinner for two at just about the only game in town: Subway.

The Meyers ate 6-inch subs with Baked Nacho Doritos, and watched as a long line formed inside the sandwich shop on Florida Avenue north of Waters Avenue in Tampa. The Subway was one of a handful of restaurants that had the electricity _ and the business savvy _ to stay open as the hurricane blew through Tampa Bay.

At Church's Fried Chicken on 34th Street S in St. Petersburg, customers crowded a busy waiting area and the drive-through line wrapped around the building. The restaurant opened at 4 p.m. and almost immediately drew a crowd.

Latasha Dudley visited Church's after her power went out Sunday afternoon.

"I bought water this time but no food," Dudley said. "During Frances, the power was out for five days and all the food I bought went bad."

A steady stream of customers came through the Sonic in Brooksville.

They were there for cherry limeades and cheeseburgers. But they also got a bonus: complimentary ice. Owner and manager John Purdy said he had a big ice machine and could afford to give the ice away.

In Tampa, Frank Mitchell, 53, bought ice and beer from the BP station at Sligh and Nebraska avenues.

He lost power at 2:30 a.m. Sunday as the outer bands of the storm blew in.

Faced with the prospect of a hot house, "I had to get beer," Mitchell said. "You can always use beer."

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Sherri Day, Justin George, Alex Leary, Logan Neill and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.