St. Pete’s Kissin’ Cuzzins icon is for sale, pancakes and all
ST. PETERSBURG — When the phone rings and someone asks if Kissin’ Cuzzins is closed, employees can’t help but sigh inside. They picked up, didn’t they?
Regulars still come four, five, six days a week, strolling through wooden stalls for pancakes, melty galettes, chef’s salads drizzled with ranch and – surprise! – even drinks from a full bar. Loyal employees, some on the schedule for decades, still top up coffees the second someone takes a sip. Politicians are always smiling for photo ops – Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist stopped by the morning after his primary win.
Kathy Custode has been a part of 951 34th Street since she was 16, and that was over 40 years ago. Last Tuesday, she was manager. Two days later, she was a waitress. She does whatever needs to be done, anytime.
She learned about my booth this week and chatted away in that casual manner of a restaurant veteran. Yeah, the place is for sale, but no, it’s not sold. Custos continues to correct people who are jostling for their “last meal”. Whoever buys the restaurant would do well to keep it as is, she said.
“You don’t fix something that isn’t broken.”
Restaurants where servers call you honey are a declining breed in Tampa Bay, an area with a growing presence of $15 cocktails and Instagram neon signs. Kissin’ Cuzzins is, indeed, on the market. But the the totality is on the market – the property, the building, the branded company, the paper placemats with Florida fun facts, the eternal flow of black coffee, the reminder of last names, and the regular orders that come with it. decades of ritual.
It went online for nearly $2.5 million in June, delivering a very compelling pitch real estate ad resplendent in capitals:
This is St. Petersburg’s BEST BUY as a restaurant business opportunity AND this is St. Petersburg’s BEST BUY as a real estate investment opportunity!!! … For MORE THAN 60 YEARS it has remained VERY PROFITABLE as the MOST FAVORITE family restaurant in St. Petersburg!!!
Owner Gerry Rice didn’t write it all, he said, but selling was his idea. He’s been a Kissin’ Cuzzins employee since his dad brought him to bus tables at age 12, and that was over 50 years ago (see a theme?).
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he says.
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In 1961, the store on 34th Street was a Perkins. Rice’s parents, the late Richard and Gayle Rice, invested in the creperie along with another couple. It wasn’t going well on the books, so one of the investors had to take over the place. Richard and Gayle made a low bid in hopes of not being chosen.
They have been chosen.
They needed a new name. They had seen Kissin’ Cuzzins in a candy store up north and loved the beat. “Kissin’ Cousins” is also an Elvis movie, but it’s not the namesake. The original panels featured two small figures kissing each other.
“As a teenager, it was quite embarrassing,” Rice said. Later, he and his family redesigned the logo to a large typeface. They shortened the k-word, but there was no getting away from it. These little kissing cartoons are still on coffee mugs today.
The family has expanded the business to “eight or nine” locations around Tampa Bay, Rice said, with some having more success than others. These days, 34th Street is the first and last standing.
The rice is ready for a break. He knows, in the end, letting go means he will not control. For example, it gives 10-year-old employees three weeks of paid vacation, a relative rarity in the restaurant industry. A new owner could make promises and take them away. Rice is careful. Not all investors are called back.
“I would like to see everyone who has been here so long continue to have a job,” he said. “It was hard for me to make the decision to do it. You feel like you’re letting your guys down. You also have to watch out for yourself and your mental health.
Progress has its merits and expensive mojitos have their place. But I for one would be happy to see Kissin’ Cuzzins continue. My family lived on the corner of Clearwater near Curlew Road in the 1990s. We were in awe of the name, yes, but we got used to it. Boy, did we get used!
I always ordered the chocolate chip pancakes. One year for Lent, I gave up chocolate. The problem was that I only remembered that I had made that sacrifice halfway through hammering my traditional fluffy tower. I was on dinner autopilot, certain to be smitten. But, oh, what a way to go.
On Tuesday, I looked at a triple stack of these plate-sized pancakes. I can confirm that they have remained the same. Melting mounds of chocolate chips, a trough of whipped cream, plastic tubs of buttery “spread” to spare.
Bathed in black light, people bent their heads over plates of scrambled eggs and scooped up French vanilla coffee creamers. Servers rushed past the specialty board for pot pie soup, packed takeout orders and rang for extra sides of bacon.
I dug into the sweet pile, this time without guilt.
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