Pasadena Avenue was just two narrow, unpaved lanes when Ted Peters bought a single acre of mangroves and sand in 1950. There was no retail in the scrubby, salty wilderness, no professional buildings, no apartments, no condo towers. You could cast a line right into the water across the road. Peters had to build a seawall, and backfill the rear of his property, to keep Boca Ciega Bay out.
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish is still there, on the same land and in the same brown open-air wooden building Ted built with his half-brother and business partner Elry Lathrop, for their hard-earned and saved-up $15,000.
Mike Lathrop, Elry’s son, now operates Ted Peters along with Jay Cook, Ted’s grandson. During the busy season, they go through around 2,000 pounds of fish per week.
Lathrop has a theory about the restaurant’s extraordinary staying power. “There’s always been family members here that had an invested interest, no matter how hard they had to work or what they had to do, to make it run and run right,” he says. “Most people don’t have a lot of family that wants to continue in a restaurant, so they end up letting somebody manage it for them. And that’s why it usually goes away.”
Just like Ted and Elry, they’ve refused all offers to sell the business – and, make no mistake, theirs is prime real estate. Has been since the ‘60s, when the population exploded.
Lathrop is proud that multiple generations of families know and love the place. “People just wanted to go back to something that always looked the same,” he explained, “and always felt the same. And people keep saying to me: ‘Don’t mess this up. We want to come in here and see ugly green cafeteria plates.’
“Which, by the way, are very expensive.”
Ted Peters was a master plumber in post-World War II Olean, N.Y. After his parents split, his mother married Elry’s dad, and the extended, blended family made its way, over time, to St. Petersburg. Nobody missed the New York winters.
He was a dreamer, a hustler and an opportunist, and he took a job at the Fisherman’s Co-op on Madeira Beach.
“When Ted first got to Florida, to make money he went out to the beach, collecting fish in a washtub with some ice,” said Lathrop, who grew up in St. Petersburg. “And he would go down to the south side of St. Pete where people didn’t have cars, and he’d go door to door selling fish.”
One afternoon in 1947 he found an old, discarded fish smoker – a rough wooden box with sliding trays and space for a small bed of fire at the bottom – and dragged it home.
Soon he’d opened a restaurant – an old shack, really, with a hotplate and a couple of barstools inside – on Blind Pass Road. The Blue Anchor Inn’s specialty was smoked mullet, a bony but tasty local fish that was readily available in local waters (by net – mullet don’t bite on hooks). He fueled it with buttonwood mangrove branches.
“Everybody that smoked fish did it in their back yards, or in the woods,” Lathrop said. “Nobody had ever put it up on the side of the road. That was Ted’s claim to fame.
“He attached the old smoker to a telephone pole, which had a telephone booth on the other side of it. Whenever Ted would hear one of those old cars coming down the road – because they traveled so slow – he’d go out there and open the smoker up.
“And as it was smoking, the smoke would waft over and fill the phone booth with smoke. People would pull in and say ‘Hey, your phone booth’s on fire.’”
Inevitably, they’d leave with a belly full of mullet, and some of Grandma Peters’ German potato salad.
In late summer and fall, when business was slow, he became a stone crabber, and sold his catch to the local Mediterranean restaurants.
South Pasadena, in 1951 when Ted Peters and Elry Lathrop moved in, was an unincorporated part of Pinellas County known as Coreytown. Most of the businesses on the trail were after-hours bottle clubs; Coreytown was rough and it was lawless – the police did not patrol there.
Coreytown was abolished when local politicians – spurred on by Ted and Elry – pushed to incorporate the area as South Pasadena (they needed a minimum of 25 registered voters to do so). With this came blue laws – no drinking allowed after midnight – and the end of the bottle clubs.
Ted Peters was looking ahead. St. Petersburg Beach was being developed at a rapid clip. As the main thoroughfare to the beach, Pasadena Avenue would soon be clogged with traffic. And that meant customers for his smoked mullet and king mackerel, his secret-recipe fish spread and his mom’s fruit pies and potato salad.
He built a bigger smokehouse – without an attached phone booth – to catch folks by the nose.
Although they’d both served in the Armed Forces during the war, it was Elry who went to college (on the GI bill). He’d take the summer off and run the restaurant while Ted stretched his legs. They had a three-month-on, three-month-off arrangement that lasted until Elry’s death in 1991.
His dad and his uncle, Lathrop recalled, had built a special life for themselves and their families.
“They came to Florida to enjoy Florida. And they loved Florida. They liked to play golf, they liked to scallop, they liked to oyster. They loved to fish. They loved just being on the water. These guys were all about fun – that’s why they didn’t want to own multiple restaurants.”
They worked just enough to keep the business successful, and earn a comfortable living. Ted bought and sold property, and invested in Englewood, a rustic fishing village in Sarasota County.
He was married to Elena, his New York sweetheart, for nearly 60 years. She passed in 1992, a year after Elry.
Although Peters eventually retired from the day-to-day restaurant business, he stopped by every morning. Sitting at a corner barstool, nursing a cup of coffee, he’d glad-hand the customers, telling stories about the old days, and give the waitresses a good-natured hard time.
Well into his 80s, he loved to dance – he had a (slightly younger) girlfriend – and was a frequent visitor to the Oasis Pub on Corey Avenue, where he’d bellow along tunelessly to the oldies performed by the house band.
In February, 2001, Ted Peters was darting across Pasadena Avenue, in front of the institution that still bears his name, when he was struck by an automobile driven by a 94-year-old woman. He died three days later. He was 91.
There have been changes. Mangrove was outlawed as a fuel source more than 50 years ago; the restaurant uses red oak exclusively. Until the use of purse seines and gill nets was abolished in the ‘90s, area mullet populations dwindled. Now, the fish are taken almost exclusively with cast nets – and, according to Mike Lathrop, they’ve come back strong.
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish buys its fish – mullet, mackerel and mahi mahi – exclusively from Gulf Coast fishermen. Salmon, which Lathrop and Cook added to the menu 15 years ago, is imported.
The restaurant is still on a cash only basis, but that will probably be changing over the next few years.
What isn’t likely to change is the family’s dedication. Jay Cook’s son Ben – Ted Peters’ great-grandson – is part of the business now.
“And Ben’s about to become a father,” Lathrop smiled. “So we might well be looking at a sixth generation here.”
This story was originally published in August 2018.