TAMPA — Lisa Lawson says she has a deal with the spirits who haunt her Cerealholic Cafe and Afterholic Speakeasy businesses, which share a century-old Ybor City former church building.
She can put up with ghostly shenanigans if the spirits allow her to market the haunting.
But the ghosts have a caveat of their own, Lawson said. “Don’t make fun of them.”
She hopes customers keep that in mind throughout October, every Thursday through Sunday, when the upstairs breakfast cereal-themed cafe and bar and downstairs 1920s-style speakeasy bar host “The Haunted Tavern: A Dark Pop-Up Cocktail Experience.”
During the 90-minute event, according to a press release, “descendants of Ichabod Crane” tell ghost stories as “the tavern keeper guides you through a four-part interactive cocktail journey.”
So, are they really descendants of the fictional Legend of Sleepy Hollow protagonist?
“No,” laughed Lawson.
Is their building at 1909 N. 15th St. really haunted?
“Absolutely,” she said.
The Tampa Bay Times looked into the claim.
Lawson said she first realized the building was haunted in September 2020 as she prepared for the January grand opening.
When downstairs, she’d hear banging upstairs, and vice versa, but never discovered the source of the noise.
Then, items went missing. Lawson said she’d put something on a table and walk away. It would be gone when she returned.
“I’d tell them, ‘Listen, I do not have time to play with you guys,’” she said.
A short time later, Lawson said, the missing item would be back on the table.
Security footage, she added, sometimes includes orbs, which are floating globes of light associated with spirits. And customers who identified themselves as mediums have told her that they see spirits.
The haunting is news to Tessa Shiver Kramer, whose family owned the building in the early 1990s.
Kramer believes in the supernatural — her family also previously owned the Ybor building at 1915 Republica de Cuba Ave., which is now office space.
That building was an inn under Kramer’s family and so haunted, according to paranormal investigators, that the Travel Channel’s Dead Files show nicknamed it “Hotel Hell.”
But the church? “We never noticed anything,” Kramer said. Still, she added, “if it wasn’t haunted, it could be now.”
Deborah Frethem wrote Haunted Tampa: Spirits of the Bay, which details local ghost tales. She said she has “heard the building was haunted. But I don’t know the story.”
According to Max Herman, whose Ybor City Ghost Tour includes a stop at the Cerealholic Cafe and Afterholic Speakeasy, the ghost story goes like this:
The organizer of a cigar strike in 1927 negotiated a settlement with factory owners.
“He said that he would end it but needed one thing,” Herman said, “a large sum of money to pay the workers” for their time missed.
The owners agreed, but the organizer skipped town with his girlfriend and used the money to pay for an operation.
They returned to Tampa a year or two later to ask her father for permission to wed. He agreed, but only if they married in the church that today houses Lawson’s businesses.
As the couple planned the wedding with a priest in the church basement, a hitman hired by the factory owners killed the groom-to-be.
And that, Herman said, is who haunts the building today.
“I love a good story,” the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said, “but there has to be something behind it.”
So, how much of that story is based on fact?
The building was indeed originally a church. Built in 1911, it was inhabited by the Clark Memorial Baptist Church through the 1950s.
There were strikes throughout 1927, but they had nothing to do with labor issues that required a negotiator or a settlement to end.
The cigar workers filed from the factories and into the streets on several occasions, according to Kite-Powell, as part of worldwide demonstrations in solidarity with two Italian immigrants believed to have been wrongly convicted of murder in Massachusetts.
The Times could not find records of a murder in the church.
But there was a nearby gangland slaying in that era.
In 1928, as part of what newspapers described as a gambling feud, a man was shot inside an illegal casino located a block from the church. He later died in a medical clinic that was also a block away.
Lawson said mediums claim to see other spirits, too: children playing, a priest who appears to be unhappy with the former church being a bar and victims of a fire.
The church doubled as a school, according to news archives, and Rev. W.H. Clark, for whom the church was named, had strict beliefs that included banning movies because he said they promote adultery. The building’s third and fourth floors were lost in a fire, but the Times could not find a report to learn the year or if there were victims.
Lawson said non-believers are welcome to attend her October events, but warns such guests should keep their opinions quiet.
When she held a similar event in February, a woman mocked the existence of ghosts.
“Just as she did, shot glasses fall from the wall and a table collapsed,” Lawson said. “When the ghosts don’t like something being said about them, they let you know.”
The Haunted Tavern: A Dark Pop-Up Cocktail Experience
Where: Cerealholic Cafe and Afterholic Speakeasy at 1909 N. 15th St. in Tampa.
When: Thursdays at 6 and 8 p.m., Fridays at 6, 8 and 10 p.m., Saturdays at 4, 6 and 10 p.m., and Sundays at 4, 6 and 8 p.m. during October.