“I don’t really feel comfortable singling stuff out for recommendations,” says Olga Bof with an endearing bit of nervous laughter. After all, as founder and president of nonprofit Keep Saint Petersburg Local, it’s her job to recommend everything, to everybody, all the time. “All the members are like my children, and you’re asking me to pick my favorites.” When she’s not working her full-time job at social-services organization Suncoast Center or spending time with her 6-year-old “little man” Matteo, Olga and her team of volunteers are tirelessly promoting local businesses, as well as the ’Burg’s annual Localtopia fest. So who better to hit up for information on what’s happening in the Pinellas County city that’s emerging as a national cultural and arts destination, not to mention one of the new wave of craft beer meccas? Bof, 47, was a traveler from the get-go — “I was made in Cuba, and born in Miami,” she says. She also spent time in London and visited South America before settling in St. Pete to be close to family once again. In addition to her work with Suncoast and KSPL, she’s looking at opening her own store selling children’s books and environmentally friendly toys in 2015.
Thuy Le is the owner of three St. Petersburg establishments: Thuy Café, La V and Nouvelle Beauty Bar. If you’ve patronized any of these businesses, chances are you’ve seen the proprietress. The Vietnamese-born restaurateur (her name is pronounced Twee Lay) stands out in a crowd. She’s gorgeous, gregarious and likes a good party. Last summer, when she opened her first salon –– the 2,700-square-foot Nouvelle Beauty Bar on Central Avenue –– the business’s opening day reception included live music, wine, sake, mimosas, champagne and spring rolls courtesy of La V. “I love people,” says Le, who lives downtown with her 6-year-old son. “It makes me happy to see them happy.” Le, 34, followed her brother to St. Petersburg 15 years ago. She opened her first restaurant (Thuy Café) in 2001, long before trendy Vietnamese fusion infiltrated St. Pete’s dining scene. Tucked away in a strip mall off U.S. 19, Thuy Cafe is revered for its banh mi sandwiches and boba tea. Its upscale successor, La V, has developed a similarly fervent following since opening three years ago in downtown St. Petersburg. Once a dirty pool hall, La V is now a popular destination for pho lovers and vegetarians alike. The restaurant’s modern décor (long, white feather lamps), traditional dishes (stick-to-your-ribs noodle soup) and unusual refreshments (avocado smoothies) are a direct reflection of its owner: part warm-and-cozy and part cutting-edge chic.
Not many people get to say that they grew up in St. Petersburg these days. County Commissioner Charlie Justice is one. He grew up in west St. Pete, closer to Treasure Island than downtown, an area that used to be spotted with large parks that are now strip malls and subdivisions. The former Florida lawmaker is by no means an old guy (he’s 46), but he was born in time to go to Webb’s City as a kid. “On a special Saturday,” he said, “we’d get the caramel corn at the front. There’d be the chickens playing tic-tac-toe on the second floor.” Justice has seen a lot of good eateries come and go, and knows which have had staying power. And even though he’s seen much of the green space go away in his part of town, he and his wife and two daughters know exactly how to get away from the sprawl.
The revamped landmark building where Chief’s Creole Cafe opened last November in Midtown St. Petersburg is just one of many restoration projects that have been taken on by owners Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, who go by Mr. and Mrs. B. The restaurant was formerly a grocery store and a tavern, and traces of both are evident in the decor. Next door is the historic Moure building, where Gallerie 909 and the Brayboys’ consignment and ice cream shops are located. The couple also own the 19254 Merriwether building, which will feature affordable housing upstairs and commercial space on the street level. Carolyn always liked real estate, but didn’t realize she enjoyed renovation at the start. Later, “It just fascinated me to be able to fix stuff,” she says. “We’ve done it our entire lives.” The Brayboys, serial thrifters and recyclers as much as they are revitalizers, dated in high school, and went their separate ways when they started college. Ten years later, they crossed paths and eventually married. Mr. B introduced Mrs. B to the secondary market. He’s able to find quality dresses for $5 or $6, and still picks out her clothes. The duo has two daughters together, and five grandchildren. Their three granddaughters -— two are 10 years old, and the other is 6 — visit them in the summer. When the couple, who’ve been married for 35 years, aren’t being “old fuddy-duddies,” as they put it, they’re meandering through various estate sales, yard bargains and consignment shops. They’re also keeping up with their diverse at-home collection of plants, including white birds of paradise, almost half a dozen 20-foot-tall royal palms and African irises.
IF you’re new to the area and haven’t tuned in to classic-rock station 102.5 FM The Bone, Mike Calta’s name might not immediately ring a bell. Most locals, however, are familiar with the show host by both his real name and his former moniker, the one he used in Tampa Bay radio for more than a decade: Cowhead. “I’m 43 and have two kids,” he says with a laugh when asked why he retired the name. “It’s also not a cool name — if I’d had a cool name I probably would’ve ended up keeping it.” A Staten Island native, Calta relocated to the Bay area right after high school in 1989. He wanted to work in media, and an internship with late, lamented FM station The Power Pig convinced him his future was in radio. He’s been an entertaining and influential airwave staple ever since. On his off time, Calta enjoys spending time with his family — wife Amanda, son Joey and daugher Juliana — near home in Land O’ Lakes and beyond.
As the Real Time Traffic & Transportation Reporter and fill-in News Anchor for Bay News 9, Chuck Henson, 52, is a very familiar face for anyone who has cable in Tampa Bay — especially anyone who watches TV in the morning.
He landed in traffic reporting almost by happenstance. Looking for work as a radio DJ after collge (the University of Kentucky School of Journalism), he got a call from a CBS AM station in Chicago inviting him to interview for a job as an airborne traffic reporter. He’d never flown before, never reported traffic before, but they saw his potential, and soon he was up in the air.
"It was insanely scary. I was literally in this airplane with a map book open — because there’s no GPS — with a flashlight in my hand and my finger on the map trying to figure out where we are and where we’re going.” Success in that job led him up the ladder to management positions with media behemoth Westwood One in Chicago, Orlando and Tampa, where he moved a few days before Hurricane Charlie hit in 2004 and thought, “Omigod, what the hell did I get myself into?”
Tracy Midulla Reller was regarded as an arts pioneer when she opened Tempus Projects in Seminole Heights. Five years ago, the neighborhood was emerging as Tampa’s hip historic district and Reller, a Hillsborough Community College professor, was emerging as Tampa’s hip alternative arts leader. After a successful nine-year run as the force behind art — a Tampa artist collective — Reller, 40, decided to launch her own gallery with a similar mission: provide a launch pad for new and emerging artists. Tempus Projects opened in 2009 in a converted garage with limited amenities. Last year the space moved to a bigger and better location on North Florida Avenue across from Reller’s favorite haunt, Nicko’s Fine Foods. The Tampa native, who serves as the gallery’s creative director, is thrilled to see her neighborhood finally grow into its skin. Tempus is poised to grow again too, thanks to a $20,000 grant from the Gobioff Foundation. “I would like to bring more traveling exhibitions to the area,” Reller says. “I could see us working with guest curators and collaborating with out-of-state galleries. We’ve got an apartment above the gallery that I’d love to occupy with an artist-in-residence program. There are so many possibilities right now.”
You don’t get more Tampa than Emanuel “Manny” Leto. Born and raised in Tampa, the 38-year-old third-generation Italian American — 100 percent on both sides — bears the surname of a local high school (no relation that he knows of), and his ancestors can be traced back to the Agrigento region of Sicily, where he says around 90 percent of the Italian immigrants in Tampa hail from. His great grandmother worked in a cigar factory, and his great-grandparents on his mother’s side owned the F&G Macaroni Factory on Albany and Chestnut in West Tampa. “They called it macaroni back then,” he says. “They didn’t really use the word pasta.” Because his parents divorced when he was a child, Leto split his childhood between north and South Tampa, with a lot of time spent at the grandparents’ house in West Tampa. He attended Plant High School and was on the high school wrestling team. His earliest memories of visiting Ybor were with his older sister, Teri, who now lives in Alaska. She took him to legendary spots like Blue Chair, Ybor Pizza and Subs, Angelica’s and Three Birds Book Store. He now lives in Riverside Heights. “I love that it has that mix of Craftsman-style bungalows and 1920 Mediterranean revival architecture.” A history grad, Leto’s local expertise is so respected that the Tampa Bay History Center hired him not only to promote the facility as a PR director, but to provide input on the center’s exhibits and event planning. “I’ve been extremely lucky to market and promote something I love.”
Few have as keen an understanding of Tampa Bay as award-winning WTSP Channel 10 investigative reporter Noah Pransky. In the six years he has been in the area, the Boston native and South Tampa-via-Ft. Myers resident has broken any number of big stories. Key among the controversies he’s doggedly followed is the use of red light cameras, which he exposed as a big money-maker for the companies that pitch them to municipalities under the guise of safety. In his blog, “Shadow of the Stadium,” he digs into the politics behind local stadium deals like the process currently unfolding with the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s also a triathlete, and knows the best outdoor places to train — and avoid. Needless to say, he’s a busy guy. But when he does get out, he frequents the carefully-scouted-out locations below.
You might have seen him emcee a local event or elicit laughs in one of his acclaimed comedic roles. Actor, singer and freeFall Theatre staffer Matthew McGee has become a familiar face in the Tampa Bay theater scene, bringing Southern charm — and sass — as well as an impressive range to his roles. McGee has appeared in some of the area’s most acclaimed productions at freeFall, American Stage, Stageworks and other local theaters. He has won Creative Loafing Best of the Bay awards for being “the most joyous comic presence” and for his cabaret act with Scott Daniel, The Scott and Patti Show, in addition to other honors. Garry Breul — “the John Waters to my Divine,” says McGee — was the first director in Tampa Bay to cast McGee in a drag role, in a Suncoast AIDS Theatre production. The shtick has become an annual tradition, helping raise thousands of dollars for local AIDS charities. “I like where I am right now,” says McGee.