Robert Blackmon compared restoring a historic Standard Oil service station to nurturing a baby; he and his mother, Carolee, recently found “loving parents” who will “raise our kid right.”
A real estate developer, Robert Blackmon bought the 97-year-old, boxy little building on the corner of 4th Street and 24th Avenue South in 2019. The former city council member and mayoral candidate began rehabilitating the dilapidated site in hopes of repurposing it into a boutique drive-through café.
That vision now has a tentative name: Pete’s Drive-Thru. Steven Peterman, owner of Pete’s Bagels, will bring his popular Grand Central District concept to South St. Petersburg.
“I am very space-focused,” Peterman said. “I just love the idea – the coolness of the building and the history. It was the fastest agreement I’ve had, signing a commercial lease.”
Blackmon explained that his mom roots for the underdog and thought the building, like a person, just needed a helping hand. The two decided they would give the one-time eyesore on a major thoroughfare all the “love” needed to regain some of its former glory.
The Standard Oil station, one of St. Petersburg’s first (if not the very first) auto facilities, was a prominent landmark when it opened in 1926. It served residents from the surrounding Harbordale neighborhood and travelers until 1962.
A city report states that the station “stands as a tangible reminder of the growing importance of the automobile industry to the city’s young economy.” However, the building was hardly standing at all in 2019.
Junked vehicles and boats filled the property from its years as an auto repair shop. The roof collapsed soon after Blackmon bought the property, and he began repairing the building using original materials and specifications.
“It truly is a baby,” Blackmon reiterated. “And you don’t want to put your kid with some strangers. They (Peterman and his wife) have contributed greatly to St. Petersburg. They love the building as much as we do.”
In May, the Blackmons received a Local Landmark designation and adaptive reuse approvals needed to incorporate the drive-through aspect. That is much needed as the building only encompasses 325 square feet.
While Peterman just signed the lease and is still establishing a site plan, he said the latest Pete’s will feature a walk-up window and some outside seating under the service station’s canopy. He said the focus is creating an “express” version of the Grand Central café.
Peterman believes quickly serving people on their way to work or as they return home is the concept’s bread (or bagel) and butter. The menu will feature several coffee options and food that people can “grab and go quickly.”
He went to college with Look Alive Coffee’s owners, who own a new shop on 19th Street and 1st Avenue South. Peterman plans to use their fresh-roasted beans at Pete’s Drive-Thru.
The café will feature classic food options, like the egg and cheese bagel, and new items specific to the site. “Maybe unique cream cheese spreads and things like that,” Peterman added.
Pete’s Bagels opened in St. Pete’s Historic Uptown neighborhood in 2019 before moving to Grand Central in 2021. Peterman launched a location across the bay in Ybor City earlier this year.
Blackmon said Harbordale residents wanted a welcoming community gathering space to serve as the neighborhood’s “front door.” He believes the locally owned café with a cult-like following will achieve those goals.
Peterman stressed the importance of incorporating the surrounding community “into everything we do.” He said Pete’s would provide an affordable alternative to driving downtown for fresh coffee and bagels.
Peterman also noted that the space could have become a fast-food franchise or condos. He hopes the family-owned café will foster additional organic growth.
“We’re really conscious that it’s special to go into a neighborhood,” Peterman said. “We’re a new presence there – and we really want to be part of the community. That’s what we’re focusing on as we build out the space.”
While Blackmon set January 2024 as a target opening date, that will take some time. He must first complete electrical and plumbing work, build an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) approved restroom and pave a parking lot.
Blackmon said he gave Peterman, who will oversee interior renovations, some tenant improvement funding. Peterman prefers “early” 2024 as an opening date.
“We’re excited to work with them, and hopefully that happens,” he said. “If it happens in January, we’ll be ready.”