VINTAGE ST. PETE is a series focused on our city’s illustrious (and occasionally notorious) past. Many of these features have appeared in the Catalyst over the past two years, and new stories will be added as time goes on. This one was originally published in January 2019.
The Food Network taped an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives at Munch’s Restaurant over a long weekend in 2011, and every time it’s re-broadcast a fresh wave of customers arrives, hungry, at the southeast St. Pete landmark.
“They run it probably three times a year,” says Larry Munch, sitting at a booth in the main dining room. “Most of the time, I know when it’s coming up because I scroll through the schedule, and we’ll bring in a couple of extra employees because we know there’s going to be a bump.”
Munch’s has been in the same spot, serving breakfast and lunch, for 66 years. It’s just a few years older than Larry, who bused tables and washed dishes as boy, then created many of the diner’s signature meals, then bought the family business when his mother retired at the age of 88.
Except for a few rebellious years in the 1960s, when he went to some lengths to get away from Mom, Dad and Munch’s Restaurant, Larry’s been in the kitchen or behind the cash register his whole life.
He’s a personable fellow. On the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode, he easily matches wits with spiky-haired host Guy Fieri.
“The funny thing is,” Munch explains, “my regulars who are on the episode say they get stopped in the grocery stores and stuff like that, but no one’s ever recognized me. Except in here. There’s one guy on there that I fish with, and he says people are always stopping him and saying ‘Hey, I saw you on TV.’”
The history of Munch’s is inextricable from that of nearby Coquina Key, which was known as Lewis Island in the early 1950s when Larry Munch’s parents, Dean and Clariece, opened a sundries store – selling sodas, snacks and cigarettes to motorists taking 4th Street between downtown and the southern tip of Pinellas. For many years, a trolley ran from the city center to neighboring 39th Avenue.
(The geography here is tricky – although 4th Street South is the main drag going around Big Bayou, it disappears for about a mile, so Munch’s is technically on 6th Street.)
“There was no 7-Eleven, no Publix, nothing like that,” Munch points out. “The bread man would just park his truck out back, and as they sold bread, he would just bring more of it into the store.”
Clariece’s father was St. Petersburg fire captain Frank Zelher; he’d moved his family here from Mississippi in 1918, when Clariece was an infant. Dean Munch was a Kansan who’d served in the Air Force during World War II; he’d spent time at Albert Whitted Field and decided to make St. Petersburg his permanent home.
As a wedding present, Capt. Zelher gave Clariece and Dean the down payment on a small lot adjacent to Carlisle’s Grocery Store; Munch’s opened in 1952. Clariece took in laundry and sewing; the sundries shop rented vacuum cleaners. The neighborhood post office was in the back of the building.
Dean installed a jukebox and a hot dog vending machine.
Because Lakewood Elementary School was across the street (both Larry and his older brother, Gary, attended), they began to stock school supplies, too.
When the Mackle Brothers began development on Lewis Island, Munch explains, “All the workers were coming by and Mom thought ‘Let’s try making sandwiches.’ So they made sandwiches, wrapped them up and sold them. They had an old station wagon, so they started filling it up with the sandwiches, and drinks and all that kind of stuff, and drive over to all the jobsites over there and sell out of the back of the car.
“That got the name out there, and she thought ‘You know … this thing could work as a restaurant.’”
Coquina Key was so named in 1957.
As time passed, additions were made – a lunch counter with stools, a small grill, and in ’64, a full add-on kitchen. The family purchased the Carlisle Grocery, and it became the second, larger dining room.
In those early years, Munch’s was open from 7 a.m. until 10 at night (Dad had the early shift, Mom closed, and they took turns looking after the boys at their home on Coquina Key).
Dean and Clariece divorced in the 1970s. Many of the “Southern comfort food” dishes that are still on the menu were his recipes, some were hers, and many were developed by Larry Munch himself. Munch’s fried chicken has been the stuff of local legend for decades.
When his mother retired in 1994, Larry bought her out and took over proprietorship.
Munch’s remains one of the very few old-time lunch counter restaurants in St. Pete (they make a mean chocolate milkshake). The walls are decorated with kitschy sayings, vintage signs and even framed class photos from Lakewood Elementary (in which both Munch brothers make appearances). And there are reminders of the original sundries shop, too, including an extensive candy counter.
Although Munch’s in 2019 is technically off the beaten path, business remains brisk, thanks to the constant presence of regular, love-this-place customers and newbies who’ve just gotta try that joint they just saw on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
According to Larry Munch the secret of his success is simple. “If you’ve got good food and good service, you can make it. You gotta serve good food, and you gotta put the hours in.
“And I’ve surrounded myself with good people. I’ve been blessed. I’ve had good employees that have been with me for many, many years. And they all know everybody. And they know what to do. That’s what’s made me last – I’m sure I would have burned out 15 years ago.”