BY DUNCAN RODMAN, NNB Student Reporter
ST. PETERSBURG – Tucked away in the once-barren food desert of 22nd Street S is an unlikely food oasis that has withstood the test of time.
Lorene’s Fish and Crab House, a restaurant with only two tables and a kitchen the size of an average living room, is the oldest restaurant in the Deuces, thriving for more than 20 years in one of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the bay area.
The reason Lorene’s has been so successful is simple – affordability.
“It’s reasonable prices. I think that’s it. Reasonable prices and friendliness. The friendly people that work here have a lot to do with it,” said Lorene Office, 64.
Office, the soft-spoken, congenial proprietor of the restaurant, was born in Waynesboro, Ga., but moved to Midtown when she was three. She grew up helping her mother cook for her 11-member household.
“She’d tell me that that’s how you get a husband. And I said, well, that’s not true. That’s not really true. But that’s what my mother told me,” said Office.
Lorene’s prosperity has helped pave the way for two new sit-down restaurants in the Deuces culinary scene – Chief’s Creole Café, which opened in November, and Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food, which opened in November 2013.
Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, who own the Creole restaurant, also bought the building adjacent to Lorene’s. The building was once home to the Screaming Eagle Lounge, which was owned by Office and her ex-husband.
“The old man who used to live upstairs used to say, ‘Don’t let it pull you from this business,’” said Office.
She took his advice and concentrated on her restaurant. The Screaming Eagle closed years ago.
Office has seen a lot of changes on 22nd Street over the last 21 years. One of the most important was the addition of a Sweetbay to the area in 2005.
But when that Sweetbay pulled out of the Tangerine Plaza shopping center in 2013, concerns about the availability of fresh food resurfaced. That meant low-income Midtown residents without transportation had to buy their groceries at higher prices from nearby convenience stores.
“This area was a food desert,” said Elihu Brayboy, who shares Office’s concerns about access to healthy foods in their neighborhood.
Walmart eventually moved into the building after it sat vacant for months, harming other businesses in the shopping center. Now Midtown has a Walmart Neighborhood Market, a compact version of the familiar Walmart Supercenters.
Normally the introduction of a Walmart is a death sentence for some neighboring small businesses, but in this case it actually provided some much-needed relief to the struggling plaza. This type of Walmart primarily sells food, so it has less competitive impact on the non-grocery mom-and-pop shops in the area.
The freshest food on 22nd Street South is available every Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Deuces Live Market.
Office is cautiously optimistic that the opening of St. Petersburg College’s new Midtown Center later this year will bring a fresh new round of customers to try her homemade cuisine.
“If they have a cafeteria, maybe they’ll go there, but if not, hopefully they come down the road to eat here,” she said.
Lorene’s Fish and Crab House remains the go-to establishment for locals, selling fish, burgers, chicken wings and crabs to its loyal and friendly clientele. But Office has bigger plans for the future.
“One thing I want, I want one of my grandchildren to go to college and take up business so I can go all over the nation,” she said. “After I’m gone, I want to live on and on and on, and I believe they can do that. I want my restaurant to be everywhere. I would like that. A Lorene’s chain. I believe we can do that.”
Asked about the mysterious orange sauce on her Big Boy Burger, Office said, “It’s a secret. Everything here is a secret.”
The secrets of Lorene’s kitchen have helped fill the bellies of Midtown residents for the past two decades, leaving an abiding mark on the Deuces’ history. Just don’t try to label her culinary style for her.
“It’s not Southern food,” she said. “It’s just regular cookin’. I don’t call it Southern, I just call it Lorene’s Fish House.”
Duncan Rodman is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.