The Red-and-White Cafe

Kara Phelps chronicles the 40-year history of a local, family-owned cafe in Central Florida.

She used to clean 500 pounds of catfish a day — “600 some days,” she told me.

Jewell is shorter than five feet, and 84 years old. She and her husband Carl owned a cafe in central Florida for four decades. It nurtured a bluegrass scene; it served shark, armadillo, and rattlesnake meat. Carl had nailed a collage of objects to the walls: coffee mugs, electric fans, two tricycles, animal skulls, punning signs from the flea market.

Jewell showed me ten or twelve photos from back then, arranged inside one frame. She guessed when they’d been taken, eying the wood paneling. The more of it exposed, the earlier the photo.

The couple started the cafe in the mid-’60s with a companion bait shop in the front. They lived in an apartment at the back of the building. They served sweet tea in mason jars, and no alcohol; customers would, however, bring brown bags of whiskey or a couple of six-packs and stay the evening. Jewell emphasized to me that the cafe was not a bar. “We never had any trouble. It was a family restaurant,” she said.

Jewell is the daughter of a Midwestern cattle rancher who moved his family to Florida to start growing oranges. Carl was the son of a cowboy. The couple grew up here, and married here. They opened the cafe after Carl had worked as a mechanic and a sheriff’s deputy. A newspaper clipping from that era, chronicling the new business, notes that Carl told Jewell he loved her once a day.

Carl had a mighty enthusiasm for people. “He wanted to do for them as much as he could,” Jewell said. He had a sense of humor that favored wordplay, and an appreciation for the bizarre. He enjoyed trading stories with the townspeople, many who wouldn’t even buy anything when they came by. They just wanted to talk to Carl, and he would oblige.

He knew a few musicians from Kentucky, and sometimes his friends would bring their instruments to the cafe, and pick at them to pass the time. Beer and liquor bottles began to appear more often, most of them still ensconced in paper. Soon, Carl let every pimply kid with a fiddle eat free on Thursday nights. The cafe became a hangout for aspiring musicians, the only one for miles. Local bands looking for a new member would come to the cafe on a Thursday to listen and watch, and at the end of the night, approach their favorite musician. Thursday nights were busy then, but not yet from paying customers.

Other people got free meals on special days, too: people more than 75 years old, health care personnel. Jewell and Carl gave away a lot of food. “We didn’t suffer for it,” Jewell said. “It was just the way he lived.”

Carl was charismatic, Jewell was sweet-tempered, and they didn’t confuse anyone. When customers started to trickle in faster, they shut down the bait shop and converted it into another dining room. A few years later, they knocked down the walls of their apartment to add more tables. They moved into a trailer they parked behind the cafe.

Carl planted red roses beneath the trailer windows for Jewell to maintain. “He promised me a rose garden, and he came through,” she said. (She likes toying with aphorisms as much as Carl did.) They had five children, who all performed small tasks for the cafe when they were young, like shelling beans and flipping burgers. When the two girls enrolled in high school, they became waitresses.

The red-and-white cafe on U.S. Route 92 eventually drew crowds from as far away as Tennessee. Most everyone in this town ate there as a child, and they all remember Carl. He was always circulating in the dining area, a living, witty spectacle to test for yourself, a Disney World of conversation.

Carl started his own column in the local paper. Bluegrass Nights became respectable affairs. A stage was built, and bands were booked on Fridays and Saturdays. Celebrities visited; politicians called the cafe their favorite restaurant. Jewell and Carl were invited to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.

After Carl died, Jewell would have kept the cafe, but the landlord wanted to sell the property, and the lease was only good for Carl’s lifetime. Jewell didn’t protest too much, and customers’ reactions were generally limited to tearful nostalgia. She auctioned off the more storied items from the cafe walls, including an eight-foot-long animal bone no one could identify and a pair of glasses that presented a grisly choice to those facing a firing squad: to flip down a shutter and hide your eyes from your last sights, or to lift it and view your approaching doom. The glasses had been wildly popular with the customers.

She photocopied most of Carl’s newspaper columns, about twenty years’ worth, and now sells them in book form. Even though it’s been years since she cooked for a few hundred people, Jewell can lift a stack of her husband’s books from the ground with the greatest of ease.

Carl and Jewell monopolized charm in this town. No other restaurant has worked its way so resolutely into the fabric of living here. Former customers recognize Jewell when she’s out, and she’ll stop and chat, maintaining the legacy. The books are selling well.

Now, where the cafe stood, there’s a Wal-Mart Supercenter, erected not long after the old building was knocked in. I don’t pretend to understand real estate sales, but I’m inclined to illustrate this case with a picture of a snake eating its own tail: a curiosity Carl might have enjoyed.

Kara Phelps has worked as a journalist and a fast food restaurant employee.