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Even when hurricanes strike,"you gotta eat'

Up and down Brandon Boulevard Sunday afternoon were nothing but closed businesses.

With Jeanne sporadically knocking out power along the city's main thoroughfare, a lot of the places didn't have a choice. Others appeared to have electricity but had opted to give up on the day.

And then there was Chuck E. Cheese's. Yes, the longtime high-tech play pen was up and running shortly after the storm's heaviest winds had subsided. I figured a parade of screaming 5-year-olds and their overzealous parents must have threatened to burn the place down if it didn't open for that special birthday party.

But one of the managers explained it was open simply because it could be open. The parties were canceled, thankfully, but plenty of parents and kids found their way to Chuck's to either get pizza or get away.

"We knew there would be a lot of people with cabin fever," said the manager, who didn't want to violate corporate policy by giving his name. "There were a lot of people coming in and a lot of people with to-go orders."

Further down the street, a line of cars wrapped around Wendy's. I was out trying to find charcoal and lighter fluid for the handy-dandy grill, but hey, if there was a place serving burgers, why bother with the hassle?

So I joined the queue and waited. And waited. Finally, I got to the window, but there was no greeting. The board was unlit, and I began to realize it really wasn't open. I rolled around to the pickup window and sure enough, there was a big sign with the word CLOSED scribbled in black marker.

I guess it was a case of wishful thinking. One or two misguided souls pulled up to the window, and everyone else just followed. It was like that bumper sticker: Don't follow me. I'm lost too.

This went on for at least an hour.

The Checker's on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Seffner was open, and cars in the double drive-through line backed up onto a side street. Manager Von Vorasane said he opened at 4:15 p.m. and did $6,000 worth of business before closing at 11:15 p.m. That's twice as much as a normal day.

Meanwhile, Times reporter Dong-Phuong Nguyen spotted an open Taco Bell on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in New Tampa. Customers sloshed through inch-deep water at the door and across a sodden rug to wait at least 45 minutes for burritos and chalupas. Some were ordering as much as possible from the menu to stock up at home.

Many said they were just sick of being home, sick of storms.

When a place opens so soon after a storm (or during the actual hurricane), the initial thought is that the business must be desperate for money.

But really, there should be a degree of respect and appreciation. No, you don't want some crazed boss making his employees brave danger just to make a few bucks, but if folks willingly come to work, I prefer to think of it as a gesture of goodwill instead of profiteering.

"I knew a lot of people were without power, and I had a lot of friends who were without power," said Vorasane, the Checker's manager. "The last time, we had a lot of people come up early Monday wanting to know when we're going to open, so I took the initiative."

Bring me your tired, your frustrated, your hungry, your screaming kids yearning to play video games. I say kudos to Chuck E. Cheese's, Checker's and other such places for carrying the torch on a dreary day.

Chances are some people wanted to work because it took their minds off the hurricane.

In fact, I think there are two kinds of people during hurricanes: those who believe idle hands are the devil's workshop and those who say if that's the case, sign me up for a 12-hour course with the devil.

Me? Well put it this way: While my wife scrubbed the bathroom spotless, I thought to myself, "Wow, this Checker's burger is really good."

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hoopersptimes.com.

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