TAMPA — Ladies and gentlemen, Cephas Gilbert has left his building and, as a result, Ybor City does not have a Jamaican component for the first time in four decades.
A little more than a year ago, Gilbert said, he was diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency.
He had run Cephas’ Hot Shop, which sold Jamaican food and juices on Ybor’s Fourth Avenue, for 38 years. In 2020, he transitioned the business into a juice bar inside Tequilas Ybor on Seventh Avenue.
So, Gilbert, known for challenging NFL players to handshake tests of strength, holding coconuts in one hand while cracking them open with a machete and turning a corner of Ybor into a Jamaican oasis, did possibly what only he would do.
“I started an organic farm,” he said. “Too many hours for too many years inside my restaurant were to blame. I needed more sunshine.”
The farm started as a part-time endeavor.
Then, in November, the Tequilas building sold and became Showbar Ybor.
Rather than looking for a new brick-and-mortar location, Gilbert decided to become a full-time farmer and traded Ybor’s chickens for the ducks that inhabit a pond near his land on S 56th Street.
Gilbert leases 8 acres. On his own, he has turned two of those acres into farmland.
“I’m here seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” said the wiry Gilbert, who claims he is 69. In October 2019, he told the Tampa Bay Times that he was 68. “Now I get all the vitamin D I need from the sunshine.”
He cleared the two acres of heavily wooded and wet land with a machete. To drain it, he dug trenches with a shovel.
“Give me time,” he said. “I’ll get all the acres done like this.”
His crops include tomatoes staked on bamboo stalks, dasheen, turmeric, ginger, malanga, callaloo and passion fruit.
And, of course, there is aloe. For all his time in Ybor, Gilbert blended aloe with ice and water and sold the bitter-tasting shakes that he says clean the intestines, serve as an anti-inflammatory and aid weight loss.
Within a year, Gilbert hopes to begin selling his crops.
For Gilbert, this is a return to his roots. Everything he planted, he said, was grown on his family farm on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica.
“My grandfather and father had a lot of land,” Gilbert said. “They worked hard.”
But Gilbert wanted to see the world, so, around 18, he forged a career as a chef on cargo ships through the late 1970s.
After a stint in Miami, he relocated to Ybor in 1981.
A year later, with $37 worth of goat, chicken, fish, spices and a borrowed barbecue pit, according to news archives, he opened the restaurant with a backyard that he fashioned to look like Jamaica.
Over the years, the restaurant became a hangout for Ybor residents. Local professional athletes who believed in the health benefits of aloe shakes were regular customers. Hollywood movies filmed there, including Cop and a Half, starring Burt Reynolds, and The Infiltrator, starring Bryan Cranston.
“He’s been part of Ybor City for so long, it’s like a piece of history is moving,” said Gene Siudut, who serves on the Ybor City Development Corporation. “It’s definitely Ybor’s loss, but if he can find success in farming, I wish him the best. It’s bittersweet, just like his aloe shakes.”
Said Gilbert, “I miss the restaurant and the people. But I like this better. I was spending 18 hours a day inside. I don’t need that no more. It was killing me. I needed more sunshine. I am a farmer now.”