After a decade of breakfast sandwiches on tasty Cuban bread, homemade soups and cup after cup after cup of steaming coffee, Erica Allums has parted ways with Banyan Café & Catering, one of St. Pete’s favorite small restaurants.
Allums sold both the MLK and Central Avenue locations last week to Tampa Bay Caffeine, Inc., which plans to continue the distinctive menu and funky/chic vibe. “Erica had a great place,” said company chief Hernan Nova. “It’s not broken, so we’re not going to try to fix it.”
For Allums, 10 years was enough. “I was ready for the next step,” she explained. “I think I took it where I wanted it to go, or where maybe I didn’t think that I couldn’t handle any more – but Central should be open at night, with beer and wine, and I wasn’t ready to do that. And I personally didn’t want that on my shoulders.”
Daughter Evan – the youngest of Allum’s four children – is starting classes at the University of Jacksonville this fall. “Evan is going off to college, Banyan is going off to college … and I guess I am, too,” Allums laughed.
Allums and her husband Bruce also own Allums Imports, a parts, sales and service company for European cars. It was the continuing success of this business, she explained, that allowed them to take a chance on the corner shop at 689-D Martin Luther King St. N. in 2008. Bruce Allums had been a regular morning visitor to the previous tenant, St. Pete’s Finest.
She readily admits she had very little idea what she was doing at first, having never run a business by herself. However, “I’ve always been surrounded by women that cook. I’m Portuguese, and I grew up in this cellar/kitchen with everyone cooking. Big family dinners. And I have 70 people at my house for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get there at that point, but I knew what the end result was going to be.” At first, there were just three items on the menu. Always, everything was locally-sourced.
Allums credits her earliest staff – brought in from other eateries – for helping her learn how to operate a working commercial kitchen.
Things were slow at first. “I remember the first time we did $300,” she said. “That was the day’s total. This was probably after we were in business six months. I came home and said to my husband ‘Oh my God, I am so tired. I couldn’t do another dollar.’ I just remember being exhausted.”
She had no idea.
“People always ask me about opening a restaurant, should they do it? I say well, you need to think about this: Can you afford not to make any money – possibly losing money – for three years? That’s what you have to do. If you can’t afford to lose it at first, do not do it. Because it’s stressful enough.”
Feeling burned out, she took a sabbatical in 2011, closing the business temporarily – much to the consternation and concern of what by then had become a dedicated customer base. Her daughter Ashlynn was starting her last year of high school, and she wanted to spend more time with her, and with Evan, the youngest.
What was initially going to be a two-week hiatus turned into three months … then eight … and finally, 11.
Banyan re-opened in June of 2012, its owner refreshed and re-invigorated. “And the community was so supportive,” Allums said. “I’m not kidding – the day I opened, it was all good again. It was like I had never closed.”
Her ambitions renewed, she rented a second location, the former home to Spice Routes Café at 701 Central, part of the Morean Arts Center complex. In its three years, Banyan Central has become as popular as its sibling – perhaps even moreso.
Tampa Bay Caffeine purchased both business from Allums, as well as Banyan Catering.
The new owners also have deep roots in the community. Hernan Nova opened the Funky Planet skate shop in Oldsmar in 2005, and within a few years moved the growing business to Tallahassee. Following a family tragedy, he sold his interest in the shop.
In 2017, he decided to move back to the bay area, forming a corporation, Tampa Bay Caffeine, Inc., with his son. Together, they went looking for a coffee shop in St. Petersburg to buy.
The Novas were close to a deal with another location when a realtor friend told them both Banyan locations were going up for sale.
Tampa Bay Caffeine took over operation of Banyan on Thursday, July 19.
Nova is well aware that the Banyan is something of a beloved institution. “We did hire an executive chef, who’ll be starting next week,” he said. “We are going to make light changes to the menu, but nothing too drastic. We’re going to get a beer and wine license in the next couple of months, and go from there.
“It’s a great place. We’re not trying to re-create the wheel.”
For Erica Allums, the wheel having been successfully created, there’s a new life waiting – she and her husband plan to work on their house, maybe even build a water garden out back. And she’ll continue catering, under the company name E. Allums.
Once a chef, always a chef.
Still, she enthused, “I can do what I want. I don’t have to be at Banyan every single day. I don’t have to wake up at 5:30 every morning.
“I keep thinking ‘What’s next?’ Maybe I’ll be a night owl now.”