LARGO — Conservative Grounds coffee shop co-owner Cliff Gephart was getting pretty good at this.
He held a customer’s iPhone high and horizontal as he took a picture of a man in a red “Make America Great Again” hat giving two thumbs up from behind the desk in the “oval office," a back corner painstakingly decorated to look like the president’s work space.
“I’ve taken at least a hundred of these today,” Gephart said, handing the man back his phone. Then he reached down to open the small door on the front of the replica Resolute Desk. “See? Even space for John-John down there.”
There was also a red button set in a wooden box, much like the one on President Donald Trump’s real desk. The president’s button summons a butler with a Diet Coke, the Associated Press reported. Push the button at Conservative Grounds and Trump’s voice comes out: “I’m really rich" or “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Conservative Grounds, a new conservative-themed coffee shop at 13344 66th St. N in Largo held its soft opening on Saturday. The shop is at the end of a strip mall of diverse businesses including LGBTQ bar Quench, Jionjuku aikido dojo, Dharma Kava Lounge and Cosmos Cafe breakfast restaurant. The space had previously been the Atlantis Gentleman’s Club and more recently a hookah lounge.
The other principal owner, John Tatum, 57, owner of Tatum’s Bait Tackle & Grocery in St. Petersburg, said it had taken nearly six months to get the space ready. Gephart, a two-time candidate for St. Petersburg City Council owns Taco Cartel, a “taco sausage” company founded to “get around the stringent laws” that prohibit street taco carts but allow hot dog carts. His previous ventures included Rhino Film Studio and a 24-hour internet radio station.
In front of Conservative Grounds, an antique military Jeep was pulled up on the sidewalk and a sticker on the front door reminded customers that lawfully concealed firearms were welcome. Inside, one wall held a shrine to the Second Amendment surrounded by mounted rifles. Gephart, wearing his own red hat and a brown blazer talked with a group of customers about possible T-shirts the shop could sell, and his jacket flapped up to reveal the Glock 27 holstered on his hip — one of two pistols he carried.
“They call it a New York reload," Gephart said. "If you run out of ammo in the first one, you have a backup.”
“This is the safest coffee shop in the world!” a customer yelled.
A wall nearby held four televisions tuned to Fox News and Newsmax TV. Another spot designated the “wall of honor” was already half full of signatures of veterans and police officers and congressional candidates signed in marker. The back door, near the bathrooms, is covered in a picture of a unicorn in a magical forest with the words “liberal safe space, enter here." It leads into the alley behind the plaza.
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The baristas wore plain red hats with T-shirts that said “The right coffee shop for America." The countertops were glossy red to complement the blue floor with white stars painted on it.
Gephart estimated about 1,000 customers had come in on the first day, including one woman who’d traveled more than 100 miles from Winter Park. Things had gone smoothly. There had been posts on Facebook about a planned “takeover” protest of the shop, but it never materialized, Gephart said. Largo police said Gephart called them on Friday to report Facebook comments mentioning that their baristas should wear bulletproof vests. But there was no trouble at the business, police said, and although they’d logged the phone call, there was no police report.
By late afternoon about a dozen customers were still at Conservative Grounds, some engaged in lively conversation.
Well, Bernie is a communist.
No paper straws here! This isn’t St. Pete.
“Some people are uncomfortable walking into what they would consider liberal type environments,” said Robert Amaio, a customer who said he’s a member of the local “Trump Squad," and has been waiting eagerly for Conservative Grounds to open. “I go everywhere. I’ve never had a problem in a Starbucks or anything. But this place is great. The pie in a jar is really good.”
Talby Demarco, 21, said she feels like it’s a place where she won’t get profiled as a liberal just because she’s young and has tattoos. She said that happens sometimes in downtown St. Petersburg where she lives. “So I’m a conservative, but I don’t necessarily even feel like talking about politics at all," she said. "But people will just assume and start going, ‘Oh, f---ing Trump did this.’ It’s just kind of annoying.”
Tatum and Gephart are the principal owners, but Gephart said they also have more than 50 investors “from all different, diverse backgrounds” that they call the “founding fathers.” He said interest has been so high they’ve had to turn other potential investors away because they haven’t been able to properly vet them all for the right values. He also said he has to calculate a higher dollar amount threshold before taking on anyone else, “because this business could potentially be worth a lot of money.”
“I’ve already had people contacting me asking about opening franchises,” he said. “I have one coffee shop in the area right now who called me and said they’d like to close down and re-brand as Conservative Grounds.”
Conservative Grounds is not the first coffee shop to mix caffeine and politics, but it is unique to Tampa Bay. Trump-themed Covfefe Coffee and Gifts is opening in Rockland, Maine. MAGA Donuts is located in Tazewell, Tennessee. Black Rifle Coffee company in Utah is not specifically partisan in its marketing, but the veteran-owned, gun-themed business is passionate about the Second Amendment.
Tatum said the inspiration for opening a conservative-themed coffee shop was a widely-publicized incident in Tempe, Arizona where a Starbucks barista asked a group of police officers to leave the store because another customer said the officers made them feel unsafe. Starbucks apologized and said the barista was not following company policy, but the day he read about the incident was the day the idea for Conservative Grounds was born, Gephart said.
“It’s about honor. Police officers, law enforcement, you know, first responders, people in our military, we want to give people a place where they can feel comfortable, where they’re not asked to leave,” he said. “When I walk into a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread, and I have my MAGA hat on and Trump stickers on my laptop, I see the sneers. I hear the comments under the breath. People even take pictures of me and post them on Instagram. .... Everyone is welcome here.”
Open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. They serve a variety of coffee drinks, doughnuts and milkshakes.