Cephas Gilbert admits that his aloe shakes are bitter.
But the health benefits of the blended drinks, made only with water, ice and aloe scraped fresh from a leaf, Gilbert preaches, are worth the harsh taste.
He feels the same way about his next stage in life.
Gilbert is downsizing his business.
The decision was a bitter one to make, he said, but for the best.
At the end of November, Gilbert will close his Cephas’ Hot Shop restaurant that has cooked Jamaican food from the corner of 17th Street and Fourth Ave. for nearly four decades.
He will then open a small juice bar on Seventh Avenue.
“I will miss this place,” Gilbert said of his restaurant that serves jerk and curry chicken, curry goat, fish and oxtail. “This has been home. But it was time to move on and slow down.”
It may shock longtime regulars to hear the phrase “slow down” from the man known for leaping onto tables in a single bound and challenging NFL players to handshake tests of strength.
With a smirk, the wiry Gilbert boasted his hands, strong from years of blue-collar labor, can still best the most muscular of men.
Still, the 68-year-old said, “When you hit a certain age, you know it is time to slow down.”
His juice bar will be part of Tequilas Ybor at 1613 E. Seventh Ave.
Upon hearing of Gilbert’s desire to downsize, Jason Fernandez, who owns the Mexican restaurant, offered space.
Build out will begin soon, Fernandez said, and be complete by the end of the year.
Gilbert will occupy a spot in the left-hand corner of the courtyard, inside an enclosed area with a service window facing Ybor’s main thoroughfare.
He will sell his homemade carrot, tamarind and other juices he has served for years, plus, of course, aloe shakes.
“Cephas is an absolute icon in Ybor, and I could not let him leave and go somewhere else in this community,” said Fernandez, 50, who has been a Cephas’ Hot Shop regular since he was 15.
But Fernandez had another reason for wanting to keep Gilbert close.
“I had a heart attack this year,” he said. “Cephas is on me every day to drink aloe. He keeps me healthy.”
Among aloe’s health benefits, Gilbert said, is improved circulation and digestion.
“I will miss this business," Gilbert said. “But I will still be doing what I love – helping people be healthy.”
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Gilbert arrived in Ybor in 1981 after relocating to Miami from Kingston, Jamaica.
Cephas’ Hot Shop opened a year later with $37 worth of goat, chicken, fish, spices and a borrowed barbecue pit, according to news archives. He earned nearly $300 that first night.
He would later introduce the juices and aloe shakes he drank as a child in Jamaica.
Gilbert also moved into the restaurant’s neighboring home and turned that corner of the Latin district into a Jamaican oasis.
The restaurant boasted the colors of the island nation.
He joined his home and business backyards into one and planted fruits, vegetables and trees native to Jamaica. He built a gazebo and opened it to the public.
“He’s one of the last bastions of authenticity,” said Gilbert’s former longtime Ybor neighbor Kimberly DeFalco.
Hollywood has taken notice of Gilbert’s unique corner.
Among the movies to feature it were Cop and a Half starring Burt Reynolds and The Infiltrator starring Bryan Cranston.
There have been hard times, Gilbert admitted, but he has always successfully spun those into positives.
He once had a chicken coop across the street. But a storm destroyed it in 1993 and the fowl ran free.
Rather than griping about losing his source of fresh eggs, Gilbert let the birds remain at large. Many of today’s Ybor chickens, he claims, are descendants of those.
“Now they are a tourist thing,” he chuckled.
In 2006, a faulty coffee maker started a fire that scorched his restaurant’s interior. It took Gilbert nine years to rebuild. In the meantime, he erected a makeshift hut between his house and the restaurant.
From there he continued to sell his juices, aloe shakes and Jamaican cuisine. It became a community hangout spot and passers-by would stop to check it out.
“That helped me get a lot of new people drinking the aloe,” Gilbert said.
He believes his Seventh Avenue juice bar will offer the same exposure.
And two years ago, he begrudgingly moved when landlord Jack Shiver decided to renovate Gilbert’s home and turn it into another restaurant.
“That was for the best,” Gilbert said. "Living next to my business, I had people knocking on my door at night and in the morning. I’ve been able to rest since moving."
This next change, Gilbert said, while difficult to make, “is also good. Things move on. That’s life."