On Monday nights, they rock the house

Mike Thomas
Dillon Mastromarino | USFSP
Mike Thomas (left) hosts the open mics.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – What do a retired IT worker, a chef-turned-radio host and a full-time musician have in common?

A guitar in hand and a time slot every Monday night at Caddy’s open mic.

The waterfront restaurant at 3128 Beach Blvd. S brimmed with eager performers from around the Tampa Bay area on Nov. 18.

Tables and chairs were rearranged to accommodate the makeshift stage. Dozens of wires snaked along the floor from sound boards to electric amplifiers. People chatted and drank, their cased guitars lying beside them as they waited to be invited on stage.

One player, Paul Brechue, said he wasn’t sure about performing that evening. However, he said he always kept a guitar in his car just in case.

“I tried being a full-time freelance musician but mentally I needed the stability of a 9-to-5 job,” said Brechue. “I managed to rack up 17 years in IT at a major cellular company and by saving my pennies I was able to retire early. But I always played part-time as well.”

After the Beatles hit the airwaves when Brechue was around 11, he was eager to start playing. From a young age, Brechue said, he had always wanted to learn how to play music and was greatly influenced by the music he heard at church and (thanks to renditions by Wendy Carlos) the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

When he was in high school, a teacher exposed Brechue to Dixieland jazz, which was a gateway for his appreciation of music theory and the Great American Songbook. He said he’s been playing professionally ever since.

“I go to open mics now mostly because I haven’t been ambitious enough to book paid work,” Brechue said later via email.

“I was aware of a couple other open mics on Monday. I opted for the one in Gulfport because it wasn’t too far a drive, and it turned out to be a great choice since several of the players were old friends I hadn’t seen in a while.”

One of those old friends was Mike Thomas, the host of Monday night’s open mics.

“I was asked to host an open mic about a year ago and wasn’t thrilled by the idea at first,” said Thomas. “But once it started to take off it reignited my excitement with being a part of an amazing, creative music community. And that’s what the Tampa Bay area is.”

Lynn DiVenuti
Dillon Mastromarino | USFSP
After the open mic, Lynn DiVenuti unwinds by playing for passersby.

As long as he can remember, Thomas said, he has loved music. When he was 12, he said, he hijacked his older brother’s chord book. He started playing professionally seven years later.

Once Thomas committed to hosting an open mic, he began attending as many open mics as he could find. Through constant networking, Thomas met several players and songwriters whom he considers the bedrock of the local music scene.

He said he found common ground with many local artists and as he supported them in their craft, they supported him.

“All I do is play now,” said Thomas. “Open mic is a bonus. I play the gigs as they come and love every minute of it.”

Support is a major factor in the local music scene. One local musician, Lynn DiVenuti, attends every Monday open mic in support of Thomas.

“[I] have performed at just about every live music venue in Gulfport by now,” said DiVenuti. “Open mic keeps me practicing everything I learned throughout the years. If I didn’t play open mics the instruments would get dusty or I’d need to join a band or start one.

“Music is in my blood; ain’t no denying it.”

At the age of 4, DiVenuti built her own drum set using a Lincoln Log box, lids, spaghetti pots and various kitchen utensils.

“Kinda surprised my parents let me live this long,” said DiVenuti. “I was an active child.”

When she was 15, DiVenuti said, she received her first guitar as a bribe from her parents to stop running away. The first song she learned was the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road.”

Her first gig was with a bluegrass band at age 19. She’s been performing for 45 years.

DiVenuti has held many jobs during her life. She’s worked in marketing, advertising and music management, and he created and sponsored events from music festivals to chili cookoffs.

DiVenuti said she was a chef for over 20 years. She owned and operated several bistros, was the director of food services at USF St. Petersburg and was the night manager of the St. Petersburg Times’ company cafeteria.

DiVenuti lives in Gulfport and is a host for Pro Sisters Radio, a platform created for female musicians to promote their music.

“I always loved Gulfport,” said DiVenuti. “Gulfport is my home now since 2007. It is perfect for me. We all help each other when needed and the sense of community is strong. Plus the music rocks!”

They offer comfort food for vegans

Brian and Audrey Dingeman
Courtesy Jenni Presley
Baseball and a business opportunity brought Brian and Audrey Dingeman to town.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – When diners visit Gulfport’s newest vegan deli, they’ll likely notice two themes in the decor.

Several golden dinosaurs are scattered about, and there’s a shelf filled with dozens of bobbleheads of Tampa Bay Rays players.

The dinosaurs are gifts from customers who like the food and name of the place – Golden Dinosaurs Vegan Deli. The owners started with a few bobbleheads, and customers have added the rest.

The owners, Audrey and Brian Dingeman, got their introduction to the area when they would visit from Gainesville to watch the Rays play at Tropicana Field. They noticed there wasn’t a vegan restaurant in the St. Petersburg area, so they moved and set up shop.

The deli, which is nestled on the corner of Beach Drive and 30th Avenue S, is the town’s first restaurant offering “all-vegan comfort food made in-house,” Audrey Dingeman said.

Upon entering the restaurant, your ears are filled with punk rock music. The first thing you see is a striped wall mimicking a prism. The stripes are blue, pink, yellow, navy blue and green.

None of the light fixtures match and each wall of art has a different theme, found by Brian during his thrifting ventures.

There’s a menu board on the wall behind the register, a black background with white lettering. In front of it is a bakery case filled with dairy-free pastries.

The couple has been vegan for a “long time,” Dingeman said.

“We make comfort food for vegans who miss things they used to have,” Dingeman said.

Dingeman said there have been a lot of questions from people about what being vegan means.

“It’s not an everyday word for everyone,” she said.

Vegans consume no animal products, including dairy. They are different from vegetarians, who consume dairy products but not meat.

Vegan lifestyles vary. Some people are raw vegan, meaning they only eat raw fruits, vegetables or other food that doesn’t need to be cooked. Others don’t eat nuts or gluten.

Reasons for transitioning to veganism vary. A large reason is animal welfare and stems from a disapproval of how animals are treated in slaughterhouses.

Others transition because they believe it’s healthier, and they search for raw or gluten-free options at vegan restaurants.

“We’re vegan for the animals first and foremost,” said Dingeman. “And we’re not a healthy vegan restaurant by any means.”

They are not allergen free either, and they’re open about it.

“We do our best to prevent cross-contamination, but we use gluten, we use nuts, we use coconut and peanut butter,” Dingeman said. “We advise people with serious allergens to stay away, honestly.”

They serve mimosas on draft during brunch on the weekends, and keep the beer as local as possible.

The restaurant runs weekly specials like Cuban and Monte Cristo sandwiches. Sometimes, the item sells well and they keep it.

Others are only made for a week, or sooner if the product sells out.

“The Cuban was actually one of our first specials,” Dingeman said. “It was so popular that we immediately put it on the menu and it’s now our top seller.”

Katlynn Mullins | USFSP
The deli also has dairy-free desserts.

The Monte Cristo didn’t become a permanent item. Normally, it’s a fried ham and cheese sandwich with syrup, Dingeman said. They made theirs from seitan, but took it a step further. They battered, deep fried it and also made blackberry jam to go with it.

When they opened the deli, it was only the two of them.

“We thought it’d be like that for a couple months, but we learned very quickly that the St. Pete area was ready for a restaurant like ours,” Dingeman said.

“So two weeks later, we hired two full-time people. We’ve grown about three times faster than we anticipated.”

The hardest things are keeping up with demand and building space to store food products. There wasn’t a walk-in freezer when they opened, so they built one.

“It’s a good problem to have,” she said.

There were about six weeks of demolition and remodeling work when they first got the place.

“We don’t have silent investors or big money hiding in a bank somewhere,” Dingeman said. “We’re doing this really grassroots. Every penny that this place makes we put into making it better.”

“We’ve been slowly swapping out equipment and getting more efficient. Things like that make the kitchen work better so we can produce more.”

Since opening, the restaurant has been inspected by the state three times and each time met inspection standards.

Twice, inspectors cited an “accumulation of black/green mold-like substance in the interior of the ice machine.” It was cleaned during the inspection both times.

He met the Texas-size challenge (burp!)

Smokin' J's
Carter Brantley | USFSP
The restaurant also serves its fare in normal portions.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – The city of Gulfport may be small, but it has a barbecue restaurant that serves a sandwich with 12 pounds of meat.

This place is Smokin’ J’s, and the sandwich is part of a gimmick called the “Texas Challenge” (or the “Smokin’ J’s BBQ Challenge”), where customers can attempt to eat the sandwich and sides in an hour.

If they meet the formidable challenge, they get the food for free. If not, it’s $49.

The owner, John Riesebeck, says he started the challenge because so many other places had food challenges and it seemed appropriate to start one of his own.

“Everybody’s got a challenge sandwich; I wanted a Texas-sized challenge,” said Riesebeck, who according to his website started cooking barbecue as hobby in Dallas.

So far, eight people have attempted the challenge, with only one completing it and another coming a half-rack of ribs and a piece of bread short.

“He was close, but I guess when you know you’re not going to finish it, you don’t want to put yourself through the pain,” Riesebeck said.

The customer who met the challenge was named Nathan Figueroa. He did it in June 2017 on his second attempt.

Figueroa has a YouTube channel to tout his fitness regimen and food bingeing, and he came to Smokin’ J’s from his home in Coral Springs.

On his YouTube video, Figueroa eats the enormous sandwich step by step.

He starts with the jalapeño on top of the sandwich. “Starting with the jalapeño wasn’t a wise choice, because now my stomach is burning,” he says.

He then works his way through each layer of food – pickles, onions, sliced brisket, pulled chicken, pulled pork, sliced sausage and a boneless rack of ribs.

Along the way, Figueroa takes sips from both a water bottle and a cup of lemonade.

For meeting the challenge – in 59 minutes and 56 seconds, he says – he won a $250 gift certificate, a T-shirt and a “case of beer.”

One customer, Zach Sirois of Redington Beach, said he was intrigued by the challenge.

“I would have to see what 12 pounds of meat would actually look like,” said Sirois. “But if you climb the saddle, be ready for the ride.”

The restaurant, at 5145 Gulfport Blvd. S, also offers food of the normal portion variety. You can order any number of sandwiches, plates, sides, or desserts.

It has homemade pickles and ice cream that are definitely worth a try (although maybe not at the same time). The ice cream flavors vary greatly, even including a CBD-infused flavor.

The Smokin’ J’s name comes from the owner’s sons all having first names that begin with the letter J.

The restaurant offers live entertainment, with a singer-songwriter known simply as Hector performing there twice in October (“Always a good time when HECTOR is playing in the house,” according to his website).

Three times between 2014 and 2017, Smokin’ J’s was issued warnings by state restaurant inspectors for violations that included failure to keep certain foods cold enough. Since then, the restaurant has met inspection standards.

Buy local, live local

Ester Venouziou
Courtesy Heather Joie
When she left journalism, Ester Venouziou became a champion of local businesses.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – It started modestly in 2008 as a list of local places for Ester Venouziou’s parents to explore when they visited from New Jersey and didn’t know what to do.

Seeking suggestions from friends, Venouziou turned to the new social media platform, Facebook, to develop a bigger list, which eventually became a website and her part-time hobby.

Then, when she was laid off at the St. Petersburg Times in 2011, Venouziou decided to turn that hobby into a full-time job as a champion of locally owned, independent businesses – shops, restaurants, nonprofits, artists – throughout the region.

Now, her LocalShops1 counts 550 members, cranks out news releases, sponsors three big community events a year, publishes a monthly online magazine called “Live Local!,” and helps local vendors sell their products at Venouziou’s small turquoise building on the corner of Beach Boulevard and 29th Avenue S.

Outside the building, a large sign reads, “LocalShops1 Local Business Advocacy + Support.”

Inside, a local photographer named Kandy Hurley is chatting with visitors about her small photography art business and updating her website.

“It has been great to find out who buys my art and gain feedback because I can’t do that online,” said Hurley.

The shop, which features products from some of Venouziou’s members, is staffed by small business people like Hurley on a rotating basis.

These people work two or three shifts a week in exchange for getting space to showcase their products.

If they sell something of their own, they get 100 percent of the sale price. If they sell somebody else’s product, that entrepreneur gets 60 percent and the shop gets the other 40 percent.

“If we had to pay a regular staff, there is no way we could do it,” said Venouziou.

Local business people can get on Venouziou’s website for free. If they want more advertising or rewards from LocalShops1, they can buy memberships that range from $8.33 to $50 per month.

To spread awareness throughout Tampa Bay about the importance of shopping local, LocalShops1 and Venouziou sponsor three big events a year, including a Florida Food & Brews Festival at England Brothers Park in Pinellas Park in February and a Florida Suncoast Tiny Home Festival, also at England Brothers Park, in March.

Her biggest event is Shopapalooza, a two-day festival held the weekend after Thanksgiving at Vinoy Park in downtown St. Petersburg. It features more than 225 local artists and businesses, with entertainment, activities and a food hall.

Venouziou was born in Greece and lived in Brazil until her family moved to New Jersey when she was 12. She attended Boston University, where she graduated with a double major in journalism and psychology in 1992.

Then she and a couple of friends moved to Florida on a whim to escape the cold weather.

Her first journalism job was with the now-defunct Boca Raton News. She had stints at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale before coming to the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), where for nine years she designed pages, copy edited and wrote a few short feature stories.

As a local business owner herself, Venouziou understands the struggles of competing with big corporations.

Breaking even every month is sometimes difficult, she said.

But she knows that her little business and its members are making “our neighborhoods better,” she says on her website.

“Money spent locally is more likely to stay locally,” she says. “But it’s not just about money. These are businesses that link us to the past and ensure our communities will have lots of character in the future.”

She sends out ripples of positivity

Laura Shepherd
Decker Lavely | USFSP
”The world needs more good news,” says Laura Shepherd.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – In a small backyard in Gulfport, a smartphone streams live as a barefoot, spirited resident interviews guests and spreads what she calls the city’s “magic.”

This is “The Laura Shepherd Show”—an internet series dedicated to sharing good news and work in the Gulfport community.

On a recent Sunday, a dozen audience members sat on a patio in assorted outdoor chairs surrounded by greenery. The words “The Laura Shepherd Show” were written in colorful chalk across a garage door in front of them.

The 58-year-old host opened the episode with a smile and her original theme song.

“Something’s gonna happen and it could be good…something’s gonna happen like we knew it would,” Shepherd sang while strumming on her mandolin.

The project was started by Shepherd and her neighbor Treeona Hill, 35, in September 2018. They were looking for something to do and decided to create a show that promotes positivity “because the world needs more good news,” Shepherd said.

The duo shares the “good news” by inviting a musician, a nonprofit and a small business owner onto each episode. The show lets internet users learn about happenings in Gulfport without leaving their homes.

It broadcasts every other Sunday on Facebook with a live audience sitting behind the smartphone camera.

“I’m tired of bad news and I think it’s great to talk about things that make you feel good,” Shepherd said. “For one hour every other week we can feel good and let other people feel good and shine.”

Throughout an episode Shepherd interviews each guest about their music, nonprofit or business.

She welcomes live performances from her musical guest and shares her original songs like “Bushel Basket,” which Shepherd said is about putting your troubles in a basket with holes and letting the sunshine through.

Her previous episodes have had guests like Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, singer Rebekah Pulley and the local band TrenchFoot Shindig.

“Gulfport is magic. It’s a magical community where there are so many interesting happenstances,” Shepherd said.

She is a musician who performs at local events like Geckofest and the Blueberry Patch, but she hasn’t always been a singer and songwriter.

Both her parents worked for the U.S. Army, and Shepherd was born in France at the American Hospital of Paris. Her father was a history teacher and her mother worked in art and design.

The family moved to Arlington, Virginia, when Shepherd was in the third grade and she studied studio art at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg.

There, she founded a nonprofit called Downtown Greens, a community garden that still operates. Her life also took her to travel across continents like Europe and countries like Costa Rica and New Zealand, as a part of a work exchange program.

Though she dabbled in music as a child, it wasn’t until Shepherd was 40 that she decided she could perform and record music.

“It took me a long time to be able to perform live without being terrified. I made a New Year’s resolution to play music with another human being every single day when I was 40, and then the next year I made a resolution to perform at an open mic twice a week…,” Shepherd said.

“After performing out twice a week I got much better at it. I still do get nervous even before this show but I try not to give that too much power.”

Shepherd relocated to St. Petersburg in 2012 to care for her mother after her father died. Later she moved to Gulfport and has been in love with the city ever since.

“I love Gulfport; if you’re too weird for Gulfport, you’re just too weird,” Shepherd said.

The host, now retired, works occasionally on local film and commercial sets and with previous clients and gardens from her time with Downtown Greens.

The Laura Shepherd Show
Decker Lavely | USFSP
Carrie Boucher of the NOMAD Art Bus chats with Shepherd.

The “Laura Shepherd Show,” now in its second season, marked its 30th episode on Oct. 20. The episode featured local musician Greg Woodruff, Carrie Boucher of the NOMAD Art Bus and Renata Augaitis, owner of Rumbles Bakery.

“If I lived within a few blocks from here I would be sitting here in the audience for every show. You don’t know what you’re going to discover and learn,” Boucher said.

Shepherd said her viewership and audience members have grown since the start of the show. The 30th episode even had a viewer comment from New Zealand.

“It’s like hanging out with your friends, but you’re learning about different things that are going on in the community and you’re supporting each other and laughing,” said first-time audience member Lauri Zavala.

Shepherd said she hopes her show will continue to grow in viewership and one day be profitable by increased pledges on Patreon, a service that helps creators provide content in which viewers can subscribe.

She also aspires to produce an episode every Sunday in the future when more people are eager to donate and be guests on the show.

“I think everybody likes to be recognized, people leave here happy they have been on the show…,” Shepherd said. “If you leave here happy, maybe you run into the next person happy and it just ripples out. Ripples of happiness, let’s do good and be good.”

Since its start, the show has gained more than 700 likes on Facebook and has hundreds of views on each episode, sometimes even reaching 1,000 viewers. It can be viewed live on Facebook every other Sunday at 11 a.m. It is also available on Apple Podcasts and Patreon.

The show also encourages live audience members who can request the address through Facebook.

They shake and shimmy to a salsa beat

Dancing in Gulfport
Bridget Burke | USFSP
Carol Rivera (center, in white) has taught dancing in Gulfport for nearly 15 years.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – In the ballroom of the historic Gulfport Casino, four chandeliers and a disco ball shine brightly from the ceiling as couples below learn to shake their hips and move their feet to the beat of the faint salsa music playing in the background.

The 5,000-square-foot, 90-year-old, solid-wood dance floor is a perfect place for instructor Carol Rivera to hold her weekly Latin Night.

Every Thursday at 6 p.m., Rivera breaks out her dancing shoes for salsa, bachata and merengue lessons. She has been instructing students in the Gulfport area for nearly 15 years and loves sharing her passion for dance.

As Rivera instructs her beginners, she explains to them that it’s not the steps that matter, rather the way you dance from inside.

“Everything comes from your soul,” Rivera said.

Many of the students share Rivera’s love of dance.

Sipping cabernet in the corner, first-time attendee Carmen Alduende removed her jacket and got ready to salsa.

A native of Puerto Rico and a former resident of Japan, Alduende is no stranger to Latin dancing. She loves to show off her “beautiful skinny legs” during the tango, the dance of passion.

As a military wife with a daughter in the FBI, Alduende dances as if she has no cares in the world. While her family remains rather proper, Alduende said, all she wants to do in life is have fun.

“I love life and I love myself,” she said.

Alduende’s partner for the night, Canadian snowbird Hart Watt, has also been dancing his whole life.

Watt has been surrounded by music since he was a band boy just outside Barrie, Ontario, at the age of 14.

After he helped the band set up, Watt would watch as wives and daughters danced alone, and he began to notice the lack of men on the dance floor. Once he stepped out on that floor, he said, he never looked back.

“I discovered that girls like guys who can dance,” he said.

He attends classes in Gulfport at least three times a week and goes to other dance classes around the area. Watt finds that dancing helps relieve his chronic back pain and helps him celebrate the memory of two lost loves.

His 78th birthday is just around the corner, but Watt said he intends to keep right on dancing.

Her basil is free for the plucking

Tabitha Crosby | USFSP
A laminated invitation is attached to Margaret Eldridge’s mailbox.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – It’s a small mailbox surrounded by a bushy basil bunch.

A laminated sign reads “Food is Free,” but the homeowner isn’t growing it for herself.

She’s giving it away.

Margaret Eldridge, a resident of the proudly weird city of Gulfport, is trying to improve her community by offering free food to neighbors and strangers by growing herbs by her mailbox.

Eldridge won’t call herself a horticulturist in any sense, but she enjoys the idea of gardening.

“I’m not a particularly green thumb. In fact, I kill a lot of plants” she said.

Eldridge was inspired by a Miami Shores couple, Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll, whose property was a battleground in a six-year legal fight. Their city’s zoning code prohibited them from growing a front yard garden.

That restriction has now been eliminated.

While reading on gardening, Eldridge stumbled across the Food is Free Project.

Food is Free is a worldwide movement about growing or sharing food with others. The hope is to inspire communities to grow self-sustainable ingredients themselves.

The movement was founded in Austin, Texas, by John VanDeusen Edwards, an environmentalist whose focus was finding efficient and eco-friendly options. On his website, he says he hopes the project will spread across the country.

“Never underestimate your power to inspire and affect your community around you. Even the smallest of acts can really ripple out,” says VanDeusen

It was this positive message that prompted Eldridge to start a community Facebook page.

Eldridge does not see herself as the leader of the project in Gulfport, just the messenger.

“I’m not looking to rally and create a huge movement,” she said. “I just created the page in case anyone else wanted to join in.”

Her home sits on a busy street near 49th Street S and 25th Avenue, about a five-minute walk from the Gulfport Mini Mart at 1615 58th St.

Its gets her exited to know that people are reading the sign, plucking the basil, and looking to her neighbors for other options.

However, she wanted to remind people that not all neighbors have joined the project.

“People should look for the sign before taking anything; don’t assume,” she said.

The Food is Free website has a wide range of members willing to offer advice.

Some are experts, some are beginners, but they all are willing to help newcomers. The options to start small seem limitless.

St. Petersburg and Tampa are not associated with the Food is Free movement but they offer alternatives. The St. Petersburg Childs Park Community Library offers a seed library. That means you can “check out” free seeds to grow on your own.

The library says all you need to do is bring a library card, or sign up for one, and check out seeds as you would anything else in the library. They even offer tips and tricks on how to successfully care for each seed packet.

The seeds have been donated by local residents and farmers.

The same rules apply at the Hillsborough Community College, which recently implemented a seed library to the public.

The University of South Florida Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses do not offer seed libraries.

They added a sweet spot to Gulfport

Grello and Impastato
Courtesy Let It Be Ice Cream
Tina Grello (left) and Janet Impastato love the city’s old-Florida feel.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Whether they are two-legged or four-legged, Let It Be Ice Cream caters to all.

Over the past four months, owners Janet Impastato and Tina Grello have added a new sweet spot to Gulfport.

They traveled much of the world before deciding to settle down and stay in one place. They found Gulfport and fell in love with its old-Florida feel.

“There’s a lot of good energy, very diverse, which I absolutely love,” said Grello. “In this small town, there’s always something to do.”

Impastato had always thought of selling ice cream when she retired. She dreamed of riding a bike around town delivering sweets to anyone craving that fix.

Although Impastato may not have done exactly that, she and Grello did stumble upon a space that would end up being Let It Be Ice Cream.

According to the owners, their ice cream bar is one of the smallest shops in Gulfport. The 6-by-6-foot, white and teal shop sits between a real estate office and a restaurant at 2902 Beach Blvd. S.

It is too tiny to seat customers, who are served through a large window and can sit on a small bench about seven steps away.

“Blink, and you’ll miss it,” said Grello, with a laugh.

Although the shop may be tiny, the options on the menu are plentiful.

Let It Be Ice Cream offers a variety of items for the pickiest of eaters, from its dipped coconut almond bar to its organic mango bars. Grello and Impastato’s main goal for their shop was that the whole family could enjoy the sweet flavors of ice cream.

According to the two partners in iced crime, they offer a selection of dairy, dairy-free, vegan, low-sugar, and fruit, as well as “pup cups.”

So when Grello and Impastato say that you can bring the whole family, they’re hoping you include the furry little brother as well.

There aren’t many places in southern Pinellas County that offer ice cream to pets. Let It Be has two flavors for furry friends: bacon and peanut butter or bacon with banana and peanut butter.

Grello and Impastato own dogs of their own, shih tzus named Keel and Bodhi. They wanted to make sure that the ice cream they serve is a healthy option for all pets.

The shop’s “pup cups” are actually frozen yogurt that contains probiotics and digestive enzymes made specifically for dogs. Yes, humans can eat this yogurt. Will it be good? Probably not, said Grello, who has not tried either flavor.

Along with the ice cream and yogurt options, Let It Be has a pay-it-forward program that encourages customers to buy an item for the next guest. That way those who may not be able to afford the cold treat can still get a taste.

“In spreading positivity and kindness we hope to inspire others and support those who need it,” say the owners on a Facebook post.

She got lost and found a home

Branda McMahon Art
Courtesy Brenda McMahon
Branda McMahon creates ceramic art for residential and commercial clients.

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – She grew up in New York, went to college and graduate school there and then spent a decade as a broadcast journalist there.

So how did Brenda McMahon end up as a ceramic artist in Gulfport and a driving force in the little city’s arts community?

It’s a long story.

When she was 30, McMahon, 55, took a pottery class on a whim to help get through an upstate New York winter. “I fell in love with it that night and the love affair was ‘fast and furious,’” she said.

Her introduction to Gulfport was serendipitous.

She was staying at a Clearwater hostel while attending an art show when she went for a drive, got lost and found herself in Gulfport.

“I had no idea where I was, but I thought to myself I could totally live here,” said McMahon. “It’s a magical little community.”

Before finding Gulfport, she never saw herself living in Florida long term. But after just one year in the city, she bought a home there.

McMahon has been a full-time ceramic artist for 25 years.

She has done wall murals in lots of homes and almost a dozen hospitals, including Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women in Houston and the Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

She has taught classes around the country for 20 years and internationally for seven.

At her Brenda McMahon Gallery, other artists of her choice display their work alongside her own for a couple of months at a time. There are 20 other artists there now.

She creates custom ceramic wall art for residential and commercial clients in her studio about a half of a mile from her gallery at 2901 Beach Blvd. S, Suite 104.

Living in Gulfport for the past 12 years, she finds herself balancing many tasks – creating art, running the office, curating shows, working on designs, conversing with clients and making custom pieces.

She works alongside her companion, Ty, a 5-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback boxer mix. Her “Buddha boy” has welcomed every guest into the gallery since it opened seven months ago.

“I’m never bored with having the capacity to express myself in many ways and I love presenting in a diverse field,” said McMahon.

Three years ago, she founded the Art Jones studio tour and art sale to help connect the Gulfport community to its local artists.

Art Jones isn’t a person; the name plays with the idea that you’re “jonesing” or craving something – in this case, art.

“We jones to create and welcome you to satisfy your Art Jones to collect,” said McMahon.

This tour is a free, self-guided tour that showcases the work of 20 artists at 19 locations.

“It really connects people with the creative process and the dedication we all have to our craft,” said McMahon.

They sway to the beat of motivation

USFSP Student Reporter

GULFPORT – Zureida Gonzales dances to relieve pain from double-joint disease and depression.

Milana Sidorenko dances for stress relief and exercise.

And Steve Abrams? He comes in hopes of meeting someone.

Whether it’s relieving stress through movement, getting a sweat from a good workout or searching for a soul mate, many Gulfport residents find themselves counting their steps to the beat of motivation.

The joys of dance come alive on Thursdays, when the Gulfport Casino holds a Salsa dance class that welcomes anyone interested.

“Dancing takes away my pains and releases endorphins,” said Gonzales, a regular.

Gonzales explained how dancing has always been a passion of hers, and that she now dances to cope with the depression and pain caused by her hypermobility joint syndrome.

The dance class offers a physical and mental release.

“It lets me live in the moment,” said Sidorenko, another regular. “I can just clear my mind and feel the music.”

She attends to release stress and to exercise. From swaying hips to swinging legs, she said, the class requires the movement of many parts of the body, not just one.

With smiles and high-fives of encouragement, some students enjoy the social aspect of the class.

“I get to meet some nice people,” said Abrams, another regular.

He said attends the class weekly in hopes of meeting someone.

The instructor, Mack McGuffin, described many benefits of dancing, from being able to use the creative side of his brain to preserving his memories and mental functions,

The Gulfport Casino, on the city’s waterfront at the foot of Beach Boulevard, hosts activities nearly every day.

There are regular dance lessons. Ballroom and Argentine tango lessons are on Tuesdays, swing dancing on Wednesdays, salsa on Thursdays, and disco, funk and Motown every second Friday.

The casino also holds weddings and receptions.

The casino dates back to 1905, five years before the city took the name Gulfport. A dock was built to accommodate St. Petersburg residents who took the trolley to the waterfront, where they climbed into boats for a cruise to popular Pass-a-Grille beach.

As the casino expanded over the years, it became a destination itself.

While each student has their own reason for taking the class, they all dance with smiles.

“If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong,” said Sidorenko.