In Safety Harbor, Whistle Stop Grill and Bar has a long history. For years, it was an ice cream shop. Then it became a neighborhood restaurant. When Louis and Cheryll Kinney became owners, they carried on the spot’s legacies, including delicious fried green tomatoes and the care and maintenance of the vividly painted cow statue that sits outside.
Then, Louis Kinney did something else for Safety Harbor. He made sure Whistle Stop wasn’t just in the community, but a vital part of it.
Kinney, 42, died Dec. 24 of cardiac arrest. Now, the community he helped is working to help his family.
“Locals being local”
One day in March of 2022, 15% of sales at Whistle Stop went toward Discovery Academy of Science.
In July, Kinney took part in a hot dog eating contest to support the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Center.
In August, he helped make a batch of prom punch to support the Safety Harbor Library Foundation’s Adult Prom.
In December, Whistle Stop hosted a Breakfast Club Rock & Soul Charity Christmas Show that benefited several organizations, a shoe drop and a Santa breakfast with a portion of proceeds going to Feeding the Fosters.
“We call it locals being local,” Kinney told WFTS in September ahead of Safety Harbor Restaurant Week, which benefited the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Center’s food bank. “Everyone is working together.”
A family and a restaurant
Kinney grew up in New York and wanted two things, said friend and former Safety Harbor Commissioner Scott Long: “a family and a restaurant.”
He built both.
Kinney made his way from working for area restaurants into owning the Whistle Stop.
“He wanted to make it his own,” Long said, “and he was on his way to doing that.”
He was also the father of two — Louis and Lilianna. Kinney coached his son’s baseball and his daughter’s softball teams.
He stayed loyal to the New York Yankees, Jets and Rangers and was competitive with pretty much everything, said friend Johnny Zemzicki, owner of Safety Harbor’s Harbor Bar, but he managed to include humor and fun.
“He put a lot of pride in everything he did,” Zemzicki said.
And though he had two huge things in his life, he made time between them to support other bars and restaurants working to support Safety Harbor.
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“Larger than life”
Condolences on Whistle Stop’s Facebook page remember a man who was always smiling, and the way he made newcomers feel like regulars and regulars feel like his best friends.
A GoFundMe campaign for Kinney’s family has raised more than $50,000 so far.
“We all loved him and he meant so very much to every single person he touched in his life,” Cheryll Kinney wrote in a statement. “He was and is larger than life.”
Kinney made space for his neighbors to support each other and showed people how to show up. Now, the community, musicians and businesses he worked with are returning the support. The list is long.
It includes: Troubled Waters Brewing’s creation of Lou Brew, with the proceeds to benefit his family. Gigglewaters, a restaurant and screening room, donated two days’ worth of proceeds of ticket sales. Mobil Station Deli donated one day’s proceeds. There are matching donations, T-shirts, efforts to support employees on days when Whistle Stop had to close, a meal train, and on Feb. 5, Harbor Bar will host an all-day event to benefit the Kinney family.
“Lou was a big supporter of the whole community,” Zemzicki said. “If he thought he should be there, he was there.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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