TAMPA – Mary Jo Polo chokes up at times during the conversation, her eyes welling, as if she were attending the funeral of an old friend.
In a way, she is.
She and her brother, Matt Cadrecha, are closing Design Interiors furniture store, an Ybor City landmark, after 76 years in business. It was started in 1943 by their grandfather, Belarmino Cadrecha, who came to Tampa from Spain at age 16 to take a job in a cigar factory. He turned a side business into an enterprise that flourished for three generations of the family.
“Matt has always been the accounting side of it and the operations,’’ said Polo, 55, taking a break last week from a going-out-of-business sale. She has always been the customer service side, the co-owner the public sees. “I’ve always been the loudest,’’ she joked.
The store won’t actually close its doors until sometime this summer, Polo said. They have to be out by mid-August. She and her brother are selling the building, with a listed tax value of $832,323, to a buyer they don’t want to name. The sale hasn’t appeared yet in county records but trade is brisk in Ybor City properties.
Design Interiors is the latest on a list of Ybor City family businesses sold in recent years to developers and investors.
The venerable La Tropicana Café was sold in 2016 but continues operating. Tamborello Brothers Service Station on east 4th Avenue closed the same year after nearly 70 years in business to make way for condominiums and businesses.
Polo and her father, Bob Cadrecha, ran the furniture business according to the founder’s dictum.
“You need to be able to walk down the street and look everybody in the eyes. You need to treat your customers with that in mind,’’ said Cadrecha, 79, on hand at the store to help as mailing-list customers milled about looking for bargains.
He remembered his father’s warning of the damage one unhappy customer can cause: “You can’t run a double-page ad to compensate for one unhappy customer.”
Design Interiors got its start as Broadway Furniture Company. Belarmino Cadrecha, who had a sixth-grade education, arrived in the United States alone in 1914 and started work at Cuesta Rey cigar as apprentice. He later moved on to Perfecto Garcia. He spent his three decades in the industry as a selector, boxing cigars based on their color shade — a job that required excellent vision.
He realized that as his eyesight declined with age, he could find himself out of a job. So he started a side job, buying and refurbishing used furniture and repairing furniture for fellow cigar workers. In 1943 he opened his first store at 13th Street and Seventh Ave. His inventory was dominated by a lot of cotton mattresses, some ice boxes and oil heaters. His wife, Lucretia, a teacher, helped keep the family afloat while her husband concentrated on the business. It grew steadily. Customers could pay on an installment plan, a dollar down and a dollar a week.
Robert Cadrecha worked in the store as a boy, just as his children have. Mary Jo was a receptionist at 14 while her two brothers worked in the warehouse. The older brother, Robert Jr.,is a Catholic priest in Largo. “He prays for us,’’ Polo said with a grin.
“I never gave my kids an allowance,’’ Cadrecha said. “I said, ‘You don’t get money for the act of breathing.’ They’re all hard workers.’’
Bob Cadrecha and his older brother, Bill, took over the business in 1958, their father retiring to his farm in Pasco County. Belarmino Cadrecha died in 1982 at 85.
“My father basically handed over the keys to us in 1958 and walked out and never came back,’’ Cadrecha said. “We had a huge inventory that was all paid for. We had a couple of delivery trucks and a sizeable account in the bank and didn’t owe anybody 50 cents. My father gave us a solid business to start with.’’
Cadrecha recalls his father telling him, “I want and your brother to be partners, but you’re both hard-headed and you can’t be under the same roof.’’
So he bought the building at 2234 E. Seventh. Bob Cadrecha ran that business for a while as a retail store called Furniture City. Bill Cadrecha ran a distribution operation out of the original building at 13th Street and Seventh Avenue, his crews delivering furniture to mom and pop dealers throughout Florida and Georgia.
Urban renewal in the 1960s wiped out a lot of Ybor City’s old factory worker homes and scattered the residents, flattening the retail store’s customer base, Cadrecha said. In 1973, he changed the name of the store to Design Interiors, a wholesale dealer in high end furniture for interior decorators and their clients. He and his brother also operated a rattan furniture business called Phillipine Rattan Imports.
“We had a beautiful partnership,’’ Cadrecha said. They retired in 2005. His brother died in 2016 at 87.
Just before Polo and Matt Cadrecha, 52, took over, they changed the business back to a retail operation. It was her brother’s idea, Polo said, noting that it likely saved the company, which weathered the recession of 2008.
The third-generation siblings have had a beautiful partnership, too, to hear Polo tell it.
“We sit down every day and have lunch,’’ she said. “We solve the world’s problems and get back to work.’’
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.