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At the corner store, amigos y comida buena

Freddy Castillo, owner of Orlando Latin Market, says he and his wife, Damaris, worked long hours when they first bought the store. But as the business grew, things got easier. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Freddy Castillo, owner of Orlando Latin Market, says he and his wife, Damaris, worked long hours when they first bought the store. But as the business grew, things got easier. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Feb. 14, 2018

The bodega is in a converted convenience store, next to a laundromat, on 30th Ave. N in St. Petersburg.

It bears the name of the Cuban man who owned it for a few years: Orlando Latin Market. Freddy and Damaris Castillo keep it that way as a tribute to him.

Over the last dozen years, their store has become, as one customer says, "el centro Latino," a market and more.

The espresso is sweet and strong, and next to the deli, there's a selection of cooked food — yellow rice, black beans and pork marinated in mojo — that reminds many customers of home.

Mostly, Cubans shop here, but also Venezuelans and Colombians and Mexicans and others from the Caribbean, and Americans, too, who discover the place and tell friends.

Shelves are stocked with products from Goya and Badia, brands that don't get as much space at Publix, and the freezer offers ice cream in flavors like mamey and mango. The Castillos also sell dominoes, coffeemakers, wooden mortars and pestles, and candles of religious icons, building inventory based on requests.

Freddy Castillo, 55, has been in the bodega business, mostly, since he was 18, when he left the Dominican Republic to help his uncle in New York. He and his wife moved south with their two children after 9/11. It's warmer here, people are friendly and he was happy to escape the crime. He says he was robbed — sometimes at gunpoint — five or six times. "I'm lucky to be alive."

The bodega in St. Pete is important to the community, he says, a place not just for groceries but also to share news and meet friends and family.

A group of elderly men gather each morning to talk about politics or baseball. When they start fussing with each other, Castillo says, he just laughs along.

"Everyone knows me, and I know everyone here," he says in his native Spanish, still the language he prefers to speak.

Arsenio Zaela, who is retired from running a fish business, is a regular, visiting every day. He comes for the coffee and the company. The owners are like family now, he says, and that's how they treat everyone.

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