ST. PETERSBURG — When the phone rings and someone asks if Kissin’ Cuzzins is closed, employees can’t help but sigh inside. They picked up, didn’t they?
Regulars are still coming in four, five, six days a week, shimmying into wood booths for pancakes, patty melts, chef salads drizzled with ranch and — surprise! — even drinks from a full bar. Loyal employees, some on the schedule for decades, still are topping off coffees the second someone takes a sip. Politicians still are smiling for photo ops — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist stopped by the morning after his primary win.
Kathy Custode has been a fixture at 951 34th Street since she was 16, and that was more than 40 years ago. Last Tuesday, she was a manager. Two days later, she was a server. She does whatever needs doing, whenever.
She leaned over my booth this week and chatted in that breezy manner of a restaurant veteran. Yeah, the place is for sale, but no, it’s not sold. Custode keeps correcting folks scrambling for their “last meal.” Whoever buys the restaurant would do well to keep it as-is, she said.
“You don’t fix something that’s not broken.”
Restaurants where servers call you sweetheart are a dwindling breed in Tampa Bay, a region with an increasing presence of $15 cocktails and neon Instagram signs. Kissin’ Cuzzins is, indeed, on the market. But the whole thing is on the market — the property, the building, the branded business, the paper placemats with Florida fun facts, the eternal flow of black coffee, the recall of family names and regular orders that comes with decades of ritual.
It went online for almost $2.5 million in June, the subject of a highly persuasive real estate listing resplendent in capital letters:
It is St Petersburg’s BEST BUY as a Restaurant Business Opportunity AND it is St Petersburg’s BEST BUY as a Real Estate Investment Opportunity!!! ... For OVER 60 YEARS it has remained HIGHLY PROFITABLE as a MOST FAVORITE Family Restaurant in St Petersburg!!!
Owner Gerry Rice didn’t write all that, he said, but selling was his idea. He’s been a Kissin’ Cuzzins employee since his dad pulled him in to bus tables at 12, and that was more than 50 years ago (do you see a theme?).
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he said.
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In 1961, the 34th Street store was a Perkins. Rice’s parents, the late Richard and Gayle Rice, invested in the pancake house with another couple. It wasn’t doing well on the books, so one of the investors had to take over the place. Richard and Gayle put in a low bid hoping to not get picked.
They got picked.
They needed a new name. They’d seen Kissin’ Cuzzins on a candy store up north and liked the flow. “Kissin’ Cousins” is also an Elvis movie, but that’s not the namesake. The original signs featured two little figures smooching.
“As a teenager, it was pretty embarrassing,” Rice said. Later, he and his family redesigned the logo into a sweeping font. They shrunk the k-word, but there was no getting away from it. Those little kissing cartoons are still on the coffee mugs today.
The family expanded the business to “eight or nine” locations around Tampa Bay, Rice said, some more successful than others. These days, 34th Street is the first and last one standing.
Rice is ready for a break. He knows, ultimately, letting go means he won’t be in control. For instance, he gives 10-year employees three weeks of paid vacation, a relative rarity in the restaurant business. A new owner could make promises and take them away. Rice is being careful. Not every investor gets a call back.
“I would like to see everyone who has been there so long continue to have a job,” he said. “It was hard for me to make the decision to do it. You feel like you’re abandoning your guys. You’ve also got to look out for yourself and your sanity.”
Progress has merits, and pricey mojitos have their place. But I, for one, would be happy to see Kissin’ Cuzzins press on. My family lived around the corner from the Clearwater location near Curlew Road in the 1990s. We were agog at the name, yes, but we got used to it. Boy, did we get used to it!
I always ordered the chocolate chip pancakes. One year for Lent, I gave up chocolate. Problem was, I only remembered I’d made that sacrifice halfway through hammering my traditional fluffy tower. I was on diner autopilot, certain to be smited. But, oh, what a way to go.
On Tuesday, I stared down a triple stack of those plate-sized pancakes. I can confirm they have stayed the same. Melty mounds of chocolate chips, trough of whipped cream, plastic tubs of buttery “spread” to spare.
Bathed in the dark light, folks hung heads over plates of scrambled eggs and peeled back French vanilla coffee creamers. Servers hustled past the specials sign for pot pie soup, bagged up to-go orders and rang in extra sides of bacon.
I dug into the sweet stack, this time, guilt-free.
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