Saturday, September 19, 2009

LocalShops1 Girl finds a home!

Here she is, with Historic Shed! Details on LocalShops1.com

Tweet-up in Tampa!!!

It's that time again!! LocalShops1.com and Socially Mediated have partnered up again to bring Saint Pete Tweets' fourth Tweet-up! And this time, we're taking it across the bay ... Our host is the beautiful Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which has offered free guided tours, snacks and drinks. You just bring your smiling self :)

For those who have never been to a Tweet-up, here's what to expect: awesome people, social and business networking, maybe even a few surprises.

For more information, please go to LocalShops1.com

Coffee & tea shops, read up!

Our environmentally-friendly friends Katia and Mary have a plan to encourage businesses to make their shops greener. They're sponsoring Tampa's very first Carrotmob. Here is how it works: Businesses place bids, committing a percentage of sales on 'mob' day to go toward improving insulation, installing energy-efficient lighting, etc. Store with highest bid wins. Meanwhile, they're gathering a group of people -- lots of students here, from USF and UT -- who pledge to shop at the winning store on mob day.

For more info, go to LocalShops1.com

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pay it forward, Tampa Bay!

It's nice to know there are still some good souls out there.

One of our local small business folks who recently had to shut down because of the ruined economy also just lost her house to foreclosure. In a week's time, she and her two children would be out on the streets.

But Kalena Bowers of Parrish is resourceful and savvy. She turned to Craig's List and posted a listing asking for help from the community in finding a solution. An act of kindness was born, and someone generously offered their home for her family to stay in until they get on their feet again.

A hand up. Different than a hand out. That's what binds us all in times of crisis, I think; empathy for the human condition. And God knows right now that so many of us are affected by financial constraints.

Bowers then posted a different kind of ad on Craig's List after that random stranger offered to help: a listing urging the rest of the community to do the same. So many others are struggling, and so many of us have help to offer, even if it is just something small. She was positive that people would catch the wave.

She was right. The deluge of responses has pushed the formation of a new group: "People Helping People." Simple. Poetic. To the point. Bowers is gathering a small army of resources together to meet weekly and offer the same hand up to others in need. There's strength in numbers, and also in diversity.

Being compelled to give and give back is contagious. I still believe - as does Bowers, I'm sure - that there are genuine people with warm hearts out there, and that we can make this world a bit better one spoonful at a time. One small kind deed at a time.

Bowers isn't looking for miracles. Whether you bring food for the hungry, school supplies for the needy kids, vouchers, gift cards, knowledge, job offers, kind words, moral support - it all counts. The sum of our parts is greater than the whole. Even if we ourselves are in need, too.

So let's pay it forward, Tampa Bay. To be a part of it all, contact the group at (941) 870-5618.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy First Birthday, Local Shops1 !!!!

Let's face it: those of us who run small local businesses have few champions for our cause. And with the decline in the economy, driving customers through the door is a bit tougher these days.

We've got someone in our corner, though. Localshops1, the brainchild of savvy St. Pete journalist Ester Venouziou, has been a trumpet for local retail and small business in the Tampa Bay area for the last year.

The Localshops1 site is nothing less than a phenomenon; the network web is a far-reaching support system for local places that may not get attention otherwise. Our local retail shops, restaurants and services are like hidden gems among the area. Ester's endeavor brings us right to the shine.

And to think, this whole thing started to get Ester's mother away from the malls when she came to visit. The tentative list of great local places to shop has exploded over the last year.

And today, Localshops1 celebrates it first birthday! The local shopper girl got herself a bit of a make-over, the website got just a little more spiffy, and Ester won herself $250,000 in a marketing contest to promote local businesses. I'd say Localshops1 has much to celebrate!

It's free for local small retail and services to get listed on the site. And the value of word of mouth is priceless.

So let's pause and appreciate all this. Come celebrate with us tonight at the Tables Restaurant in St. Petersburg, 535 Central Avenue. The festivities kick off at 7 p.m. Good food, good friends, good entertainment!

Congratulations, Localshops1 and Ester! And thank you, from your local small business fans!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coffee and gossip - two of my favorite things

I learned early on as a freshman news reporter that to really find out what's going on in a place, you can't skulk around city hall. Instead, you park your butt in the best local cafe and pay attention to the local crowd.

When I transplanted myself here from little New England, it was kind of a culture shock of chain restaurants and traffic whizzing by. It took me a while to find those kitschy little local places where the pie is homemade and the gossip is just as fresh as the coffee.

Found a great one in Ellenton - D's Ellenton Cafe (7044 US 301 North, Ellenton, 941-723-1139). It's tucked away near the Rocky Bluffs Public Library, one of my all-time favorite places to wile away a rainy day. I never noticed it before; it's sort of unassuming and quiet under its cafe awnings.

Like all the other places I find, I just wandered in one day, drawn by the smell of good coffee. Ellenton Cafe is the kind of place that serves breakfast all day, and has great homemade desserts. The kind of place to knock off a sinfully juicy cheeseburger and a side of fries, and get served a good helping of local gossip.

It was obvious that Ellenton Cafe draws the same crowd in daily - they all seemed to know one another by name. It's the kind of thing I miss about living up north, that small-town feeling; like when you walk in a place, it's like slipping into your favorite house shoes.

My server tells me the meatloaf is indescribable - practically its own food group. After the pie I ate, I believe her. I know I'll have to slip in there again at dinnertime to see. And maybe, just maybe, if I slip in there enough, I could even be considered a local myself. You never know.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Taking digital media to new heights

Have you guys seen this? Billboards around the area connected to Twitter accounts? Talk about a new height in advertising.

Clear Channel Outdoors which rents out digital billboards for advertising has entered a new realm by hooking those boards up to Twitter, the social networking site that plays host to many businesses. People keep in touch by sending out 140 - character "tweets" on their status.

Clear Channel Outdoors has figured out how to instantly send those tweets to the ad boards, which update in real time. Even if you send those tweets from your BlackBerry.
They're already doing themselves - although the updates are pretty generic, limited to happenings in the local area.

But they are showing businesses the potential: set up a free Twitter account, and reach more people than by billboard alone. The possibilities are endless here. Potential customers see the update board, log on to Twitter and follow said business.

I must admit, I'm intrigued. Who knows where this can go? It's essentially taking marketing coverage boundaries and erasing the lines. And while I'm excited about this prospect, I am more excited about what it could lead to, and what it could mean for local businesses. In these days when marketing dollars are scarce and deficits are many, we need all the reach we can get.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What will happen to local St. Pete business if no Rays?

I am watching with some trepidation the "academic" meetings happening about the Tampa Bay Rays and where they should play.

Yes, I know worrying about it now is probably a bit premature, since the Rays do have a contract with the city of St. Petersburg through 2027, but I have also been around the block enough times to know that nothing is ever set in stone.

Besides the fact that the Trop is a landmark, we have come to love seeing our Rays in St. Pete. So why now after all these years is St. Pete not a suitable home anymore for the team? The group "A Baseball Community" or ABC Coalition is studying all of this and has announced that the Trop is too remote a location for most baseballs fans to get to with any convenience.

For whom?? I live a county away and still drive in to St. Pete to see the Tampa Bay Rays. And almost half of the season ticket holders live in Pinellas. If the Trop were any closer to the interstate it would have its own lane.

The ABC Coalition in their "academic" discussions are kicking around several other locations. Most of them are in Tampa: downtown, the Westshore area and the fairgrounds. Another Pinellas spot, Carillon, is also being looked at.

I will be in a snit if I have to go into Hillsborough County. I know I won't be the only one.
But all of that notwithstanding, my real concern is for our small local businesses that call downtown St. Pete home, and rely on that economic boost the at-home Rays games provide. In these anorexic financial times, our local businesses have really felt the pinch. Any more blows from the money axe and we may see more storefronts closing.

The small business community is having to rely on loans and credit to get by in lieu of consumer spending. The walk-in traffic from the baseball games is a welcome relief. If we move the Rays, that well may dry up. Who knows? Our local businesses are not silent partners in this.

There is far more for our economic development leaders to consider here than just who wants to drive where. If you build it, they will come. Well, it's already here. Can't we just keep it?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Relax and say ahhh! Great find in Parrish

Given the obvious slow death-rattle of customer service, it's nice to stumble upon a place where it thrives!

I had a great find in Manatee County, a little family-run spa tucked away on US 301 on the way through Parrish.

I'll admit it right here: I love to be pampered. Don't we all? But I have been to a few nail spas in my travels that seem to run more like a production line in a factory. They just seem to be missing that certain welcoming ambiance.

Cali Nails & Tan in Parrish is quite different. Family run by husband and wife team Luan and Kim Vo, this little nail spa just breathes relaxation from the moment you walk in the door. The hustle and stress of life sort of stops when you sit in one of their chairs, ready to be babied. The mood is lazy and laid back here (they make good use of aromatherapy); the whole place goes back to a time when people actually talked to one another.

It's tough to have a bad thought in those awesome Shiatsu massage chairs while getting a nice, long pedicure, complete with heat wraps for calves and ankles and peppermint oil skin treatments. Forget it once the foot massage kicks in!

And at this little nail spa, there's always an "in-flight" movie playing on flat screen T.V.s if you are so inclined. If you can keep your eyes open, that is.

The regular clientele that visit here tell me Cali has been this way since it opened in 2001. Here, it's all about customer service, prices that haven't changed much over the years, and good old-fashioned pride in a job well done. No wonder they have such a following! A great place to relax, soothe the soul and get beautiful.

Cali Nails & Tan is a full-service salon, complete with waxing, paraffin treatments, massage and tanning. And since it's family run, it's also family friendly. In this economic downturn, it's nice to see a small local business doing well based on their simple values of service. Hard to find lately, it seems.

You can find them at 8323 Us Highway 301 N, Parrish, FL. Phone 941-776-5450 for appointments, but they welcome walk-in traffic too. Open seven days weekly. Relax and say ahhh!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Have press releases become dinosaurs?

I come from old school journalism, the era of "who, what, when, where & why" and a good, craftily written lead. I pounded a beat for years, surviving on my investigative skills to scoop the other daily papers.

And as the business of journalism has shifted due to our digital society, I flowed with it. I know the idea of the scoop is obsolete; no such thing when the info is spinning the Web moments after it is released.

I can remember the days when press releases were our meat and potatoes, especially when a 5 p.m. deadline is looming and an editor is peering over your shoulder. In my freelance business, I have written many, many press releases for clients, aiming that arrow at the usual print sources. They have always a been a great tool to get the word out.

I wasn't ready for the NY Times article I read today in the Sunday Business section. It seems the press release is dead. And I didn't even get to go to the wake.

We live our lives online, and more often than not that's where we obtain our news. (I still read the newspapers, too, call me kooky.) And those broadcasting the news online aren't journalists in the traditional sense, but just as savvy at disseminating the breaking news. So with this, PR has morphed.

Press releases are no more. Not when we can send the same tidbit out in 140 characters or less on Twitter, or post it on Facebook or Digg. Or blog about it, as I am doing now. PR has turned a sharp corner, bypassing the old media and courting the online pundits instead, where potentially millions of people can be reached in mere nanoseconds. The seduction is obvious.

And while I mourn the loss of the old ways, I have to also celebrate the information superhighway we travel on. When anything big happens in the world, we know about it instantly, and of course, we've become addicts.

It has changed the way I run my small business. Marketing and PR have become paperless, in lieu of our e-world. A couple of clicks and I can tweet my own horn; no need to write those pesky press releases anymore.

Social media has become vital to business, almost overnight. I have rolled with the punches. And who knows? Maybe tomorrow the medium will change. But the messages will stay the same. And hopefully, our communications will still be based on relationships.
However virtual they may be.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The slow, agonizing death of customer service

I was appalled and outraged to read the email transactions between a pseudo-professional printing service and a customer they should have been fighting to keep - our very own Localshops1!

The economical swoop has left us all a little ragged, but small businesses seem to have been affected the most. Local places that we support and love are closing shop, casualties of this recession. It's just not as simple as being honest and hardworking anymore to stay afloat in this credit storm.

So that having been said, how has customer service become a casualty in this mess, also? If anything, catering to your patrons should be top priority when most small entrepreneurs today are two or three clients from being bankrupt. Keeping customers happy is vital; for this economic climate to ever bounce back we need to keep people spending at our local businesses.

That's why I just can not understand why anyone calling themselves a professional would engage in such spiteful email traffic with a client they are supposed to be serving! Burning your bridges is just not an option in business today. Localshops1 was keeping the faith by keeping their patronage local - and was given a virtual slap in the face.

Disgusting. Customer service just isn't what it used to be. Yesterday I had coffee with a client to consult for an upcoming project at a fairly good-sized restaurant (not mentioning any names here). We were paying customers in a place that was 90 percent empty, not bothering anyone, content to keep to ourselves, and pay for coffee refills. After a couple of hours, the waitress brought the check over and quite rudely told us that their place didn't appreciate "squatters!" Are you kidding me? There was no one in there but us! If not for our business, they would have had none in hours.

We can all tell these stories. But that's just it, we all have these experiences! I think we're seeing the slow death-rattle of customer service. And it's not pretty, folks.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sad news.

Just heard today from our friends at Shirts of Bamboo that they're closing shop.

We've seen lots of stores close in the past year.

There was Latitudes, a little coffee shop in St. Petersburg, where we'd stop by every few days for a cup of latte. The new owners were young, determined. But it didn't work out. They say the landlord didn't give them a chance; the landlord said he couldn't accommodate late rent.

There was If and Only If, a cute boutique/gift shop in St. Pete, that had been there for years and years. The owner, an artist, blames it on the economy. Her store sold mostly accessories and fun things, and in times when many people were sticking with just the essentials, her store couldn't survive.

And a couple of months ago, Boulevard Boutique in Pinellas Park. They'd been doing fine for years, the owner told us. Not making a ton of money, but business was good. Then there was some sort of lease dispute, and they ended up moving across the street. Business was just never the same, she said. Maybe it was the new location, maybe it was the economy. They didn't even last there a year.

---

Hearing about Shirts of Bamboo is especially sad for us. They were the first sponsors of a LocalShops1 writing contest. They were so generous, giving us -- then a brand new, unknown company -- a towel set that we could offer as the prize. They said they liked our concept, they wanted us to make it.

We wished the same for them. These are some very cool people, doing, seemingly, everything right.

We first came across the company when they had a storefront, in the Grand Central neighborhood in St. Pete. They had a nice selection, quality items, decent prices. A year or so later we heard they had closed their store, to cut down on overhead, and started operating online. They were also a constant presence at fairs, including the Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete, and Gulfport Geckofest.

Recently they opened a storefront again, at the gift shop in the history museum in St. Pete.

These are people who worked hard, who believed in their product, who really gave it their all.

Now they're closing up for good.

"This is not the letter we thought we'd be writing after four years' striving to bring you the finest quality bamboo products for your bodies and your homes. But the current economic conditions have caused us to re-evaluate Shirts of Bamboo and its long-term viability. We are closing our doors at the end of September," they wrote in an e-mail and then posted on their Web site.

Starting tomorrow, there will be huge markdowns at the store, at the Museum of History, 335 2nd Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. You can call them at 727.388.6913 or go online to shirtsofbamboo.com for more information.


-- Ester

Saturday, June 27, 2009

what happened to customer service?

Normally here at LocalShops1, we come across awesome business people. Occasionally, a not-so-nice one comes along. So we thought we'd share a recent e-mail conversation between me and the Tampa Bay-based printer we decided not to do business with ...




From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Friday, June 26, 2009 8:32 PM
To: localshopper@localshops1.com


Ester,
I just wanted to send you a quick e-mail because this does not happen that often and when it does, it honestly hurts my feelings and upsets me. I take pride in what I do and I love my job. Going back to the first time we spoke, it was a Friday night @ about 8:30 or 9:00 at night, how many printers do you know would answer their phones on a Friday at that time?
Ah, NONE!!! My company just rolled out the plastic cards, they were a brand new item, I remember I was nervous because I still did not know a whole lot about the product. That was almost 3 months ago. Now, (your intern) starts to call, she would like a quote for this and a quote for that. Oh well, I told her: please go out and shop around, I promise you will not find anyone cheaper or easier to work with (Polite, friendly, and easy going) I am under staffed and over worked, so yes I do become scatter brain from time to time.
Anyways, she called back and said she had a friend or her brother help her shop around, guess what no one could beat my prices, no one! I take that back, one company in California could, however they wanted like $300 dollars for ground shipping, so in the end I still was the cheapest. One other thing Ester, honestly I am not in this for the money, because believe me, if this was for anyone else the price would be much higher. The reason is because you seemed like very nice and down to earth people, how were doing this for a good cause. Again, see if other printers give a sh@t what your cause is or how nice you seem to be. Also, see if they tell, not ask, TELL you to shop around, because I know our prices can't be beaten. Other printers won't do that, I promise. After nearly 3 months or work, e-mailing, calling, sending samples, explaining what some printers will do to hide their hidden charges and guess what I was right.
For all that, I made NOTHING, NADA, ZERO, and that my friend doesn't pay the bills or put food on my 15 month baby girl's plate. But, that is my fault. I'm too damn nice. So, thank you, I learned a lot for this experience. The nicer you are to people the more likely it is that you will get treated the complete opposite! OH Yeah, Good luck finding someone to print your magazine for $1,300.oo.. You won't find that in a million years!!

Sincerely,
XXXXXXX

-------------------------------------------------

From: localshopper@localshops1.com
Sent: Friday, June 26, 2009 6:12 PM
To: XXXXXXX



XXXX,

I'm sorry this didn't work out.

Of course we were shopping around for low prices. But more importantly, we
were looking for someone we could establish a longterm relationship with,
because we know we'll have more printing projects in the future, and want
someone we can rely on.

Your prices were not the lowest (check out plasticcardfactory.com, in
South Florida). But when it came down to it, we had decided to still go
with you because you seemed honest & nice.

But it felt like we had to chase you down to place an order. And we simply
can't do our business like this. Placing an order should be the easy part
... (if you recall, we had to remind you to send samples; then our
original pdf was misplaced; and then you weren't around when you said you
would be. That's just too much chasing around for us.)

We contacted you back in mid-April, about the same time we started calling
other companies. They all sent samples & quotes. That just seems like
standard procedure for getting new customers. We certainly didn't ask you
to go out of your way for anything.

And we certainly don't mean to question your work ethic. From our one
experience, it just seemed more scattered than we'd have liked it to be. I
totally understand staffing issues, and perhaps this was just a bad time
for us to try to work with you. We'll keep you in mind for future
projects, if you're interested.


Ester

Ester Venouziou
727.637.5586
Find out how we won a $250,000 ad campaign. Details on LocalShops1.com

-------------------------------------------




From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:43 AM
To: localshopper@localshops1.com


Ester,

At any point in this business transaction, well whatever you would
like to call it. You say you had to chase me down. My webpage is fully
operational, a e-commerce store (on-line store) having said that most online
printers do not put their prices on their site for the world to see.
Everything I print is on my site with a price right next to it and you can
order right then and there. A two year old could do it. I do not know how
much more reliable I can be. Do, I always answer my phone? No!!!! I run
three other sites. Honestly Ester, I hate to say this but you are making
excuses, you could have placed your order anytime you wanted to, bottom
line, you wanted me to do it for you, just like you wanted me to lower the
price on this item and lower the price on this item. As a business owner, I
have to decide what I should spend my time on; should I spend my time on a
client who spends thousands of dollars a month, hassle free and is very
satisfied with the way we do business. You might have heard of them, it's a
small Collage, the University of South Florida. We handle all print media
for the Athletic department, posters for basketball games, programs,
schedules, T-shirts for Football, and yet not one compliant. Why? They just
order... No talk about "what we are going to order in a few months". TALK IS
CHEAP. If you need something, just order it. I mean, have you even seen my
webpage or is it common for someone to hold your hand while you perform even
the easiest of tasks. In closing, just for shits and giggles, this website
you speak of. I will promise you right know after all is said and done, they
are not cheaper. You will be charged for separating the artwork into 2
separate files, also charged for numbering the front of the cards in
ascending order, and then shipping is where they will get you the worst.
Your loss, my gain (of time). Good luck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Please do not keep me in mind....... PLEASE!!!!


Sincerely,
XXXXXXXX


-------------------------------------


From: XXXXXXXX
Sent: Saturday, June 27, 2009 1:13 AM
To: localshopper@localshops1.com


Sorry,



I couldn't help but notice you said you had to ask over and over again to
receive a sample pack. B.S. you receive your 1st sample pack back in April
right after you created an account. Actually, I probably did that for you!
And then you requested a second one, so you could see the plastic cards.
Again, we have a website and an office. The website believe it or not is
open 24/7. And my office is open from 10:00am to 7:00pm. What stopped YOU
from going by there, that seems pretty easy and effortless. Nope, I will
just call Todd and ask 50 more questions and then after completely wasting
all of his time, we won't order from him. Very classy Ester. Very Classy!


NOT Sincerely,

XXXXXXX

Thursday, June 25, 2009

An airing of daily grievances

Occasionally, things that happen in this world aggravate me.

I know, it's hard to believe. But in the bliss of all the shopping, and blogging and working and such, things crop up that really poop in my cornflakes. And if I don't sound off about them, I will explode, and it won't be pretty.

So here's a tentative list of what's under my skin today (in no particular order):

That commercial where it's raining shies from the sky in the perfect size. Why can't that really happen?

Road rage. O.K., I'm in the left hand lane doing 80 mph and people are on my bumper. Honestly, where's the fire?

Michael Jackson. A pedophile dies. Hmmm, seems like karma to me.

The fact that NO ONE will admit that the damage that happened in St. Pete during Tuesday night's storm was from a tornado! I was on duty, I was there! Debris was swirling! Hello?

Gas prices. They lied when they said they were going down.

Hav-A Tampa Cigars' demise. A Tampa Bay area landmark becomes the economy's latest victim.

People that breed all of these poor animals and then can't take care of them. Two cases this week alone in our area of animal neglect and abuse.

More empty store fronts, standing like tombstones.

The expression, "At the end of the day, (fill in whatever here)." If I hear it again, I'm running away.

The new Lexus IS-250 C series convertible. I'm aggravated that I can't have one.


There! I feel so much better, now. Thanks for listening! Tomorrow, I'm going to check out the Ellenton Cafe. A little birdie told me they have great coffee and homemade pie. I'll let you all know how it is!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

No bailout for small businesses

The bad economy is choking all of us lately, but small businesses are definitely taking the brunt. Just a short drive up any of Tampa Bay's main arteries tells the story: blank storefronts and "For Lease" signs.

In Florida, small business accounts for more than 80 percent of the economic engine. But in the skinnier days of late, the shoppers dedicated to spending their money locally have tightened up their belts. Unemployment rates just rose to 10.6 percent this month in the Tampa Bay region, translating to about 140,o0o folks without a job.

Local small business have seen their customer base shrink, and some have turned to banks for loans and credit extensions. Problem is, the money's just not there anymore.

So where is it? The government gave the big banks $700 billion in bailout cash to free up credit. That's billion with a "B." But the rescue money did just the opposite; instead of freeing up credit for flailing small businesses, banks are using it to buy other banks. Lack of credit has become an agonzing hurdle for local businesses needing relief to survive, much less grow.

But lending institutions are tightening their standards, lower credit lines and hiking up interest rates. The trend lately has been to deny loans to small business unless they can back it with commercial real estate holdings and the borrower is asking no more than 70 percent of the value.

Impossible standards. Where's the bailout for our local businesses? If we drive 80 percent of the state's economic engine, why aren't our voices heard? Since the credit crunch is propelling this recession, then more relief is needed downwind here where we really feel it, unstead of padding the big banks.

These indeed are scary times. We can pitch in by spending locally, buying locally, and keeping our jobs local. Until small businesses get the chance to grow, our economy unfortunally is going to continue dragging.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A local unbutton-the-pants kind of breakfast

Looking for a great place to have breakfast? I just found one in Largo, quite by accident.
I don't normally venture out for breakfast; being a nightcrawler usually sends me to bed at sunrise. Not a lifestyle conducive to grabbing an omelet with friends.

The other morning though I had to go right from night shift to a meeting at 7 a.m., and decided that if I didn't get a good cup of coffee somewhere in between that I was probably going to throttle someone at that meeting.

The Fireplace Restaurant down the way in Largo was open at the wee hour of 6 a.m., and at the urging of my good friend Lisa I decided to try them out. And what started out as coffee ended up turning into biscuits and sausage gravy. You just can't help it once you walk in there and see everyone else digging into huge plates of homemade, fat-laden, gravy-soaked comfort food.

It's the kind of place where the waitress pours you a rich cup of coffee before you even ask or see a menu. The kind of place where the owners and waitstaff are all family, so it's O.K. if your server goes in back and screams at the cook. A place where time stops, and they make everything fresh to order, so if you are in a hurry, don't even stop in.

To hell with the meeting! Lisa and I had priorities, the first being we had to pig out. The portions were way too much, but we kept stuffing ourselves like our plane was going down. Real-egg omelets and pancakes the way my grandmother used to make them! And the skillet potatoes - loaded with onion and garlic and just crispy enough to be addicting.

The Fireplace Restaurant also has a lunch and dinner menu, and the regular that dine there tell me the Greek salads and cheeseburgers are to die for. After the meal we had that morning, I believe them. I can't wait to get back there for that!

This laid-back "jes'folks" place is at 12580 Seminole Blvd in Largo, just south of Ulmerton Road. They're open at the crack of dawn, waiting for you. But a word to the wise: dieters beware! Leave your calorie restrictions at home. This is the kind of meal that you have to unbutton your pants after!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Great local Mexican eats - and a good story, too!

The economic downturn has swallowed quite a few retail and restaurant chains since the slope in 2007.

Don Pablos Mexican eatery was one of the casualties, pulling out of the Tampa Bay area and closing the doors on their five locations. The popular, usually-busy Brandon spot actually shut down two days after Christmas 2007, leaving many workers without jobs.

Former managers Joe Morales, Anthony Mundi and Andrew Purdy were in the same boat it seems - until a unique opportunity presented itself. They pulled themselves up by the boot straps, pooled some funds and bought the place.

And out of the ashes of the defunct Don Pablos rose Tres Amigos Cantina, Mexican kitchen and bar. Their philosophy is quite simple: make good, authentic meals in a relaxed atmosphere, and make it easy on the wallet.

I stopped in there on Sunday to see what all the buzz was about, and the smell of sizzling steak and chicken cooking on the grill pulled me right in. Fajitas are Tres Amigos' speciality, and you just have to order them to see why.

They do them five ways, mesquite grilled chicken or steak, a combination of both, the Amigo house special combo which includes all of the above and bacon-wrapped BBQ shrimp, and a quite unusual veggie variation with squash, spinach, peppers, carrots and corn.

I couldn't hardly wait when that sizzling, dancing platter came out of the kitchen, all of that good stuff flanked by grilled onions and poblano peppers with all the trimmings! It's way too much to eat in one sitting, so be prepared to split it with some good dinner company.

My husband had their other special dish, fish tacos. Home made tortillas with grilled tilapia, fresh veggies and trimmed in a mango-pepper sauce. Oh, baby.

And even though we were stuffed, dessert was not to be passed up - not with this menu! Fried ice cream, sopapillas and more.

I won't even get to the margaritas ... there just aren't enough words.

Tres Amigos Cantina is in Brandon nestled in the middle of the town center at 2025 Brandon Blvd, (813) 689-6476. You can peek at their menu at tresamigosbrandon.net. Come hungry!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Help for potty mouths

It’s no secret that we live in a world prone to excess.

We can’t help it; it’s just in our nature to go overboard. Especially with addictions, which is why rehabs and self-help gurus abound. Take the show Intervention on A&E. This show started out in its freshman days dealing exclusively with substance abuse. People bring this mediator with his entourage of cameras in to confront a family member that has fallen off the wagon.
It’s branched out now to shopaholics, out-of-control gamblers, people with OCD, women addicted to abusive men, and even one lady who couldn’t get enough pastry. Our voyeuristic selves were in their glories. Interventions for all!

But this takes the cake: Interventions for people who curse too much at work. Yep.

There’s actually a faction of folks who have made curbing your cursing a profession. Numerous studies have been done (one out of Harvard!) and books have been written. There’s even a Cuss Control Academy based in Illinois, who will send out an expert to perform an intervention at your workplace to help clean up the foul mouths.

Is this really necessary?

Then I got to thinking, and decided to unofficially keep track of the people who work around me, convinced that none of us needed our palates cleansed with Zest.

Holy %@$! … was I wrong! The worst offender? Yours truly. Might I need –gasp! – an intervention?

But what actually constitutes a curse word, anyway? What’s the difference between a swear, rough language and just plain infelicities of style? Is it when the juicy four-letter words make their first appearance? Or is it limited to the seven dirty words on the famous list of the late, brilliant George Carlin? Maybe it’s broader, like all the stuff you wouldn’t dare utter in church.

We had this debate in my house a couple of years back. My husband and I marveled at the amount of times – after a stressful night on the job – those pesky four-letter words came tumbling out. And thus the Swear Jar was born. The idea was to kick some money into the kitty every time a curse word flew, and force ourselves to watch our language.

In fairness, we included all the words you couldn’t say on regular T.V., figuring we’d get a meal out of it at the most.

The jar went up during tax time. By March we’d funded an entire three-day jaunt to Orlando for four.

I should have known when the Swear Jar theory failed on The Brady Bunch that our clan was doomed. I’m no Florence Henderson.

So why do we curse in the first place? Experts say to be abusive, to be bravado, to emphasize a point and to release strong emotion. They also say that there are underlying reasons, like fear and ignorance and negativity. I say pffttt! to that. Sometimes you’ve just got to let it out.

Of course, you may see me on A&E. You never know.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

You can't smell a Kindle

Recently, I went into one of my favorite local places in the world, a little second-hand book nook in Palmetto, geared up for a comforting eight-hour browse on a rainy afternoon.

This little place is hidden behind another shop that sells old tires and refrigerators and small appliances. You almost can't see it behind the graveyard of washing machines and old hot water heaters, and I found it quite by accident a year ago. It's sort of attached there as an afterthought.

I walked in, coffee in hand, ready to crawl around the stacks and sneeze in the dust and find a few hidden masterpieces. I wasn't surprised to see the lady behind the counter curled up and reading herself. Things are slow when it downpours.

What I was surprised to find, though, was that she was reading on a Kindle! Scouring an e-book in the middle of all of these stacks of forgotten treasures. Interesting juxtaposition.

The Kindle is a curious little gadget. It can download (for a fee) and hold about 1,500 books. The new version will even read to you, if you are so inclined. It plays MP3's in the background if you need tunes to read by.

There's even a Kindle app now for the pretentious iPhone. (iPhone, by the by, is going on the list of things I never want to hear again at the end of the year. 'Swine Flu' is also on it.)
I must admit, I just don't get the whole e-book thing. O.K., it's convenient and it's quick and it may even be a bit cheaper than actually paying for the physical book, and it saves trees, I'm certain. I've edited a few for clients.

But what happened to holding a book in your hands? Feeling the paper, smelling the ink? Cracking the spine? Call me kooky, but I love that visceral feel of a new book. And I love the dust and mold from an old book, too. I like to be in my quiet home office, surrounded by the noble look of shelves and shelves of books.

I also wonder what this slide in the industry will mean for our local book places. Do they have business slip off to the Kindle? Or are their still crazies like me who want to spend all day in their stores, drinking coffee and browsing and spending a small fortune on books I don't need but absolutely must have or I'll die?

I have yet to be published. But I am certain I want to see my work in the tangible, be able to walk into one of our local shops and see it displayed. I just don't think having it read on a Kindle would give me the same thrill. I know I'd have a tough time signing it.

My friend that runs the dusty old book nook that has become my second home had this to say, though: "The story's the same, no matter where you read it." Good point.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Welcome back, Java!

Boy, I miss food.

You see, my doctor took it all away when I came down with bad stomach problems last year. Seems my penchant for ridiculously hot Buffalo wings with a French fried chaser has left some holes in my digestive tract. Sigh.

I’m on the world’s worst bland diet, like plain rice, saltines and apple juice. And while he has slowly allowed me to let some things back into my culinary repertoire, all the good stuff is still a no-no. Like anything spicy, fried, fatty, breaded, rich, covered in cream sauce, doused in chocolate, caffeine-laden, or, God forbid, having any alcohol content.

You know, all the things that make life worth living.

The worst thing was no more coffee. I sat bolt upright up on the table for that little announcement. Are you kidding me? No coffee?! I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, and a third shift paramedic. A nightcrawler by all description. He could have just taken away, oh, I don’t know … oxygen maybe.

I tried to be good. But it’s so very hard.

So I actually got up and danced a jig this week when I got reluctant permission from the doc to enjoy one 8 oz cup of java per day. Look out world. The problem is, I have been deprived from that smooth, silky, wonderful goodness for so long that now all coffee tastes just plain ordinary to me.

The mission begins. I’m on the hunt for Tampa Bay’s best local cup of coffee (NOT Starbucks or D&Ds). I’m talking all the little book nooks, cafes, diners and roach coaches. Even your Aunt Edna’s living room. Bring it on!

So, fellow local shop-a-holics, pepper me with your suggestions! I’m taking a coffee tour of this great area no holds barred and taking no prisoners.

Whether the doc likes it or not.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

There's no place like home

Ah, summer. Backyard barbecues, Clearwater Beach traffic, ten-minute afternoon thunderstorms, and the dreaded family vacation.

The kids will be out of school soon and itching for something to do. So upon us once again are the months when families plan a trip to one locale or another, cram three weeks’ worth of activities into seven days, blow their entire savings, and come home needing a vacation from their vacation.

The last one we took brought us clear to Tennessee, with dreams of mountains and lakes and cabins. One look at the brochure, and we loaded everybody up in a van and headed out on the open road. I mean everybody. My in-laws, my huge, angry husband, his brother and sister-in-law, the children and all the dogs. In a van. On the highway.

These things always sound like a better idea than they actually are.

We drove an ungodly amount of hours and spent a couple thousand dollars to sit in a tiny cabin that wasn’t ours (sans air conditioning) in the Land of No Cell Phone Signal. We expected to be imbued with the beauty of nature. Instead, there were fights, mosquitoes, and a rental boat no one knew how to operate. By Day Three, I tried to get in a cab to go to the closest airport to fly home.

And we were broke at week’s end.

In the face of the Great Recession of late, I find it hard to believe families can afford to take off for a little R & R. There has to be another alternative.


What about a vacation at home? A “stay-cation?” Seriously. Follow me on this for a minute. It’s possible to create a getaway experience at home, still do a ton of activities and not break the bank:


1. Get into the mindset by blocking off the dates to go into vacation mode.
2. Have a budget and don’t stray.
3. Put away ALL THINGS ELECTRONIC i.e. PSPs, iPods, laptops, BlackBerries, what have you.
4. Go off the beaten path and find places around Tampa Bay you’ve never had the time to see, like museums, aquariums, art exhibits etc.
5. When planning, go online and look for coupons to print out.
6. Eat out! No cooking allowed. You’re on vacation.
7. And no cleaning, no laundry, no routine things!
8. Buy a couple of souvenirs.

Yeah, it’s not the same as cramming the family into a rental car and blowing two grand at the Orlando attractions, but just think how relaxed and rejuvenated everyone will feel at the end of the week … and not be in debt.


We’ll be the guinea pigs. I’ll let you all know how it goes!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ikea? No, thank you

By now, everybody must be quite sick of reading blogs about the new Ikea … So here’s another one!

The Swedish furniture conglomerate finally opened its giant doors Wednesday in Tampa, after much anticipation and hype, and greeted people with lots of fanfare. Guys dancing on stilts and employees banging thundersticks and sporting balloon hats and such.

People actually camped out for the opening of this uber giant, some for more than 50 hours. Some folks brought their little kids and made a family affair out of it. And when the doors finally opened at 9 a.m. – to a line wrapped around the two-story, 353,000 square foot building – it was total insanity.

Is it worth it? Some shoppers that waited in line got a free hotdog. One guy won a $90 chair. Lots of people got nothing, but the chance to boast that they were one of the first to walk through the enchanted doors.

So another retail giant has moved into our fiefdom. Local independent businesses, I’m sure, are keeping a worried eye on Ikea. Who wouldn’t, after all of the media coverage? Ikea this and Ikea that. My husband actually said if he heard the word “Ikea” just one more time on the news that he was going to get a shotgun and blow holes through the wall. (I shut the T.V. off at that point.)

Here’s my take: a maze of pre-fab decorated rooms and $4.99 plates of Swedish meatballs aren’t going to hold charm over people for very long. I was over it before it even opened.

It's a helluva drive, for one, no matter where you’re coming from. And, it takes half a day to tour the place. Two-thirds of a mile for one trek around the place, according to the press release. Seriously. Who can shop with that kind of pressure? Too many things. I get tired just thinking about it.

I’ll take my local indie businesses any day over this bloated, overblown cartoon of a store. At least I don’t need a map to navigate their aisles.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Starting an at-home business? Don't quit your day job

I will work for myself. I will have a less stressful life. I will make lots of money...

Starting and running an at-home business is sometimes one of those ideas that sounds better than it actually is. Especially if you go into it with that mindset. The fact is, it is just not that simple. And with the added stress of a failing economy, it can be damned near impossible if you don't have the right tools.

So you want to be your own boss. Set your own hours. Be the owner of something, and put dollars in your own packet instead of helping someone else's stock go up a quarter of a point. But how do you make that transition without losing your shirt, or your mind for that matter?

The first thing is to understand that whatever you do - from making killer cream pies to grooming pooches - will NOT be an overnight success. Studies show the mean time investment to actually start turning a decent profit is 2 to 5 years. So even if you have that bang-up dress design/pizza service/glittering porcelain frog lawn statue that everyone wants, it's still going to take time.

Let me tell you from experience. My copywriting and editing company, 911 editing, has been around now for over 2 years. I do have a modest client base, and one heck of a portfolio (if I do say so myself); still, no one's beating down my door. The amount of time time I spend networking and marketing borders on ridiculous.

But that's what it takes. That and a market niche, meaning you have to know who will need your product or service.

Other questions to answer before taking the plunge: How will you bring it to the market? What will it cost to produce? How will you find your prospects? How many items do you need to sell in a week/month/year to break even? How much will it cost to set up your office? Who's your competition and how can you do it betetr?

And, believe me, even if you're cheap (I resemble that remark), start-up costs can add up. Plan ahead on where you'll be getting things like a desk, basic office supplies, computer, phone line(s), web hosting, business cards/letterhead/ads/brochures, marketing and copywriting help, and necessary software.

My advice is this: Start with a business plan. Have someone do a professional one (they start at about $100). Mine has saved me some heartache and a bit of sanity. Have Plan B, and C and D for that matter. Know how you will manage the bumps in the road ahead of time, and be able to recover from them. Study your market. You can never know too much.

And don't quit your day job .. yet.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Two local women turn unemployment into cash crop

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.

Two Sarasota women laid off from their jobs this year and down on their luck after running through their savings can officially add another title to their belts: Entrepreneurs. And successful ones at that.

Stephanie Aucoin, 48, and Barbara Bourn, 59, were back to square one a few months ago after being given lay-off notices from their respective companies. Money in both savings’ accounts quickly disappeared; Aucoin had to borrow $10,000 from her parents to make it. Bourn had to sell her house, like so many others.

They didn’t wallow in their misfortune for long. Bourn and Aucoin put their heads together and came up with an idea to bring attention to the unemployment plight of so many: wristbands.
Every worthwhile cause lately (and a few NOT so worthwhile) has its own wristband, but not the jobless cause. These two ladies decided a whole lot of people could benefit by wearing one. And they made them screamin’ mustard yellow with bold black lettering: LAID OFF NEED A JOB.
Can’t miss ‘em. And just being seen with one of these babies on your wrist is good self-promotion. Aucoin found that out first hand, too. An exec riding up in an elevator with her saw the band, was intrigued, and offered her a position on the spot! See, fairy tales do come true after all.

The pair put their ingenuity into the business, put up a website and got themselves on Twitter for networking. And, after some local coverage, the Wall Street journal picked up the story and gave them some national media attention! Something tells me they’re sales may go up.

After five weeks, their site boasts over 500 hits daily. They’ve got a ton of followers on Twitter, and have sold more than 4,500 bracelets. Enough to cover their investment and pocket almost $9,000 in profit. Not bad for two girls just trying to make it. Great inspiration for the rest of us!

You can visit them on the web and get their full story, get yourself a bracelet (even if you don’t need one, something tells me they may be a hot commodity after the media attention) at: www.laidoffneedajob.com.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rate of homeless children increases 131 percent

Think for a moment about being homeless.

And not just you, I mean your entire family, including the children. Where would you guys all go during the day, to get out of the heat? Wander in and out of stores? Where is your family sleeping for the night? The shelters won't open until at least 6 p.m.

And three meals a day? Well, the line at St. Vincent dePaul is wrapped around the building everyday. I've driven by and seen it. And past that, what about drinks? Snacks for the kids?

The children need to go to school. Will they understand having to bathe and dress every day at the Salvation Army? Or the YMCA? Where are their school clothes and supplies coming from?

What if you get sick? What if they get sick?

And being homeless carries a stigma: people look at you and your family and think, Lazy. Drunk. Stupid. Disease-ridden. Not in my backyard.

Think it's impossible? Let me provide you with some scary numbers: the Pinellas County Coalition just released its annual head count for the area's homeless, and the number of children has doubled in two years. It has gone from 96 children under 18 in 2007 to 2,224 this year. That's an increase of over 130 percent.

I want to repeat that last figure, because it sounds vaguely important: Over 2,200 kids right now in Pinellas County have no home.

Why? Officials of course blame the economy. More families are homeless than ever. For some people in the Tampa Bay area, it's as close as one missed paycheck. When the breadwinner gets laid off, often these families are on the streets within 30 days. Shelters, food pantries and donation services can't keep up; their resources are strained. Simply put, need is up at an exponential rate, monetary donations are down. The coffers are almost dry.

Also drawing on those resources is the large, intangible group of working poor, the ones that don't get a head count every year. Without help from soup kitchens and places that provide donated clothing and household items, they're looking at that 30 days real quick. Survival becomes minute to minute.

So what do we do? What can we do? Where does relief start? Individual donations? Leaning on our politicians? Legislation? I read quite a bit of speculation, but no clear answer.

Maybe it starts here at home. Shopping locally and keeping our money in the area, making sure our local businesses thrive. Giving what we can when we can, and helping out by donating gently used things to services that get them in the hands of people that need them. There has never been a better time than now.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Do they still make Aqua Net?

I have been secretly reading with glee the blogs devoted to the being trapped in the 1980’s written by Steve Spears, St. Petersburg Times online editor. Spears has dedicated his entire existence to honoring those guilty pleasures that defined the era, like Duran Duran, the Brat Pack, Ferris Bueller and the Rubik’s Cube.

Spears is himself “Stuck in the 80’s,” and judging from the popularity of his column, so are a lot of us.

Best-selling horror novelist Stephen King is also trapped in that whole vortex. His recent column in Entertainment Weekly focused on all the 80’s pop songs that won’t leave his head. Like “Mickey” by Toni Basil. That to me suggests he’s still listening to them. A closet 80’s addict, perhaps.

Here’s my confession: I am too.

I loved the 80’s! I spent the whole time wearing rubber bracelets up each arm all the way to my elbows, flashing mismatched neon socks with my leggings and talking like a Valley Girl. I totally wanted to have children with at least three members of Duran Duran, to be Madonna and to go to school with Molly Ringwald all at the same time.

I bought Aqua Net by the case, demanded to be allowed to drink Jolt cola, and peppered my jean jacket with buttons whose slogans screamed out bits of wisdom like “Frankie Say Relax” and “Gross me out the door!”

I paired all that up with black fingerless lace gloves and Ray-Ban Wayfarers. My mother, in her ever-ready crusade to keep me innocent, drew the line at the corset. (I still snuck it in my backpack along with electric blue eyeliner, and changed at the school dances.) I won’t even get into the rhinestones.

But then the 90’s rolled in on the wings of grunge, And I fell in love with the Smashing Pumpkins. So I traded all of that in for flannel shirts, tank tops and a pair of Doc Martens. My worship of all things 80’s had to be undercover, in the closet, on the low.

My husband has caught me more than once, dancing by myself, Cyndi Lauper blasting away on my iPod. I still have black half-shirts that beg to be worn with waist-length pearls and rosary beads, but they’re hidden away in a drawer. If my hair starts getting too big, I tame it with a straightening iron.

But reading Spears’ ode to my favorite era has brought it all back, like running into an old high school friend.

And his devotion is so complete, if I were single, I be tempted to ask him to marry me.

Like, you know, totally.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The higher up you are, the worse the layoff

I read with some interest a story in the New York Times Sunday edition, about the woes of out-of-work CEOs. I was about to pass it by - after all, who cares about laid off upper echelon when we have so many regular joes in the unemployment line?

But the photo of the fired CEO that the writer was profiling beseeched me: He looked so downtrodden. I read on, and found out that this gentleman in his mid-fifties was newly laid off after giving his heart and soul to build up a corporation.

He drew a healthy six-figures from this company that services the pharmaceutical and bio tech industries, traveled the world for them, was fluent in three languages. He essentially constructed and launched their global quality assurance program, taking the company from a fledgling effort to an international force. It's fair to say he was good at his job.

So good, in fact, they canned him. And that's the reason they gave: now that the company was trading at its current caliber, they didn't need his skills anymore. Sure, they offered him a severance check and an impeccable reference, but where the heck was he supposed to go with it?

Where do all the unemployed CEOs, COOs, CIOs and CFOs go, with their five-page resumes and oft-intimidating pedigrees? You can't just place a senior executive into an entry level job and expect them to succeed. These are baby boomers who've reaped the rewards of a magical, uninterrupted stream of success. In very bad times, they're trying recapture the magic. Quite the quandary.

And in truth, there really is no answer. Just like the regular joes, they're getting stonewalled. National services like New Directions in Boston offer the laid-off execs classes in prospect networking, seminars on business network sites like LinkedIn, and office space for them to make their calls.

But they caution that it will take well over a year to produce any leads. When the severance money runs out, and these unemployed bosses dip into their savings, they are faced with the same issues that plague many American households, like how to pay the mortgage and where to go for health care.

Hopefully, this is not another dreadful sign of the times. It's not refreshing to know that CEOs aren't safe from the axe. In fact, it's disturbing to know that the bursting bubble has reached the top of the ladder. It means things are bad all over.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Clothing swap success reveals a deeper need

I applauded the success of the clothing swap held in St. Petersburg today, while watching the coverage on BayNews9. Spinderella's Steals closed their store for the afternoon to host the swap of donated clothing, sponsored by Localshops1.

The three-hour swap saw hundreds of participants, hunting through the piles of gently used stuff to take home some new treasures. I was glad to see that families showed up, and were able to get some good things for their children. And, I'm sure, some folks walked away with GREAT clothing pieces for their donation.

But what struck me was the tone of the comments made by most of the people interviewed on the news; their words had a hint of desperation in them. One woman said that it is "the right time" for an event like this, that hooks people up with necessary donated items.

It sure is the right time. The beleaguered economy has left everyone drained, some people to the brink of bankruptcy. Relying on nonprofit groups has made the difference between having a home and being out of the streets for more than a few. Living paycheck to paycheck means people are just one small event away from being in a financial crisis. I know; I've been there.

Another woman said it gave her hope, that she was trying to change her life around and make a new start after some setbacks. The way she was clutching the clothes under her arm, you could tell that the items were much-needed. And her smile spoke volumes.

And three cheers for Spinderella's Steals, for missing a Saturday afternoon's worth of sales to make sure an event like this could help so many. Proceeds and leftover clothing went to a nonprofit group that relies on every penny to provide a roof over the heads of the down and out.

So maybe this can start a trend; maybe more businesses can partner up with Localshops1 to put on more events like this, maybe even with other needed items, like small household things. The more people that step up, the more our community as a whole benefits. We can see each other through this bad times if we stick together and give just a little.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Twitter and LinkedIn: Social networking for the business-minded

I usually don’t jump on anybody’s bandwagon, but in the case of using the vast internet social networking sites to promote your business, I’m going to go right ahead and beat the drum.

Like all small business owners, marketing seems to be my Achilles’ heel. Sure, I go after prospects with some gusto, and follow up on all word-of-mouth referrals, but past that, I haven’t the time (or a clue) to market myself.

Another small business owner suggested putting a profile on a few of the social networking site out there, a tip to which I immediately turned up my nose. I don’t My Space or Facebook. All of my friends do, and there’s just too much drama.

But what he meant were the sites geared more towards professionals, like Twitter and LinkedIn. I scoffed, but tried it anyway.

I started with Twitter, the more user-friendly of the two. A few clicks, an uploaded logo and I was tweeting away. On Twitter I can follow businesses that I’m interested in, and they can also follow me, which is great. But I wasn’t truly impressed until I landed my first Twitter client in under five days. Not bad for ten minutes of site building and a couple of updates.

Yeah, O.K. so celebs like Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher tweet, too. Still, it’s more of a business atmosphere than a shout-out thing.

LinkedIn, to quote that same friend, “is like Twitter on caffeine.” I had more to do to post a profile, like input all of my pedigree information and pertinent details about my business. Also I uploaded a picture. And like Twitter, there’s a tagline to update your activities as many times as you want.

I’m still working out the bumps, such as trying to figure out all of the available apps and how to import all of my contacts from my various email lists. I did link my profile to my company’s website and blog address. LinkedIn allows up to three links.

Tipsters tell me that creating a compelling profile (more than just your resume) is the key here to tap the site’s marketing potential. Your contacts can “recommend” you – i.e. write a glowing reference about your professional capabilities that get posted on your profile and theirs, and is open for all to view.

Also, you can join groups related to your field and network with their contacts. Quite a nifty little onion once you start peeling the layers.

So I’m new to the whole online business marketing thing. But navigating new waters means new opportunities, and potential for growth. And it’s all free. For details on building your own site, go to www.twitter.com or www.linkedin.com.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Job hunting? Watch what you post online

With the rising unemployment rate, I've seen quite an increase in the requests that my company gets for resume service.

I recently did one (pro bono) for a friend who had one heck of a pedigree, degrees out the yin-yang, and job experience that would make any recruiter sit up and take notice. That notwithstanding, she was still laid off from the financial corporate giant that she had been diligently working for in excess of five years. They downsized, and she was just one of their victims of late.

Everyone assumed she'd land another spot somewhere quickly. One glance at her resume, and even I was convinced. But the positions, even if they're out there, are few and the market is highly competitive. The jobless rate has soared up to 8.5 percent nationally, and the U.S. Dept. of Labor has estimated that at least 660,000 jobs in American have been slashed.

We overhauled her resume, sent out some feelers, she pounded the pavement and waited. After a smattering of interviews that went nowhere, she got a solid lead at a good company, for a position similar to the one she left, and for a higher than entry level salary. She went back for the second, and then third, interview. A lot of hand-shaking and winking, she confided. Things looked promising.

She didn't get the job.

But not because she wasn't impeccably qualified. Not because her references didn't sing her praises. Someone in the human resources department scoured the social networking sites, and found some questionable photos of her on her My Space page. She was in a thong bikini in some, and in a couple of others she was guzzling drinks at a local bar with friends.

So? I said. But apparently, they informed her, that was not the kind of image they wanted their employees to project. And they used it to weed her out, and hire number two on the list instead. That's their prerogative.

Here's the thing: Her profile was set to private. Probably not a big deal to navigate around for some savvy IT guy, but the fact that they want to that trouble is a little creepy.

So I did some digging. And found out that this is the newest trend with companies and their prospective hires. The Internet is a marvelous place to scrounge up info on people. What that commercial says is true: Once you put it out there, you can't take it back. Anybody can see it.

Point taken. And a painful lesson learned for my ashamed friend.

With each resume I do, I include a set of white papers on successful job hunting and interviewing tips. Now, I've rewritten them to include advice about social networking pages. If you My Space, Bebo, Facebook, or anything else, yank off anything that may seem even a bit inappropriate. Even comments. Even music.

Hey, I know this seems a bit extreme, but so is unemployment. Not only do you need to cover every base when job hunting, but apparently you need to cover your fanny as well.

In the case of my friend, quite literally.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Low-cost health care center opens in North Pinellas

More than 45 million members of our American family do not have health insurance. The elderly. Families. Children.

About 3.8 million of those people live in Florida, and struggle daily between feeding their family and getting the proper affordable health care that could save their lives. Choices are few, and the heartbreaks are many.

Some people make too much money for government assistance, but not enough to go to the doctor, or to get health care for their kids. For some, the emergency room becomes their primary health provider, a practice that helps no one but adds to a vicious cycle.

In our area, though, a not-for-profit group has been providing low-cost quality health care for the past 20 years. Community Health Centers of Pinellas offers primary care for adults and children, quietly spread out in four Pinellas County neighborhoods.

Last week, they opened a brand-new center in Tarpon Springs, to serve the people in the northern part of the county.

Community Health Centers at Tarpon Springs held their grand opening Friday the 27th. The location at 301 Disston Avenue will give people a low-cost choice for primary health care, pediatric services and dental care as well. The center also offers obstetrical/gynecological care, Well Woman exams and pharmacy services.

The need for this kind of care is astronomical – and is growing exponentially with the plummeting economy. People want a place to turn to not just when they are sick, but when they need routine check-ups and immunizations.

The CHC at Tarpon Springs, like its other four centers, will also give patient education and nutritional counseling through registered dieticians, components vital to staying healthy.
Unfortunately, it is a sign of the times, but it’s nice to see another resource pop up for the demand.

Here are the five Pinellas locations:

Community Health Centers at Clearwater
1020 Lakeview Road
Clearwater, FL 33756
(727) 461-1439

Community Health Centers at Largo
12420 130th Avenue North
Largo, FL 33774
(727) 587-7729

Community Health Centers at Pinellas Park
6237 66th Street North
Pinellas Park, FL 33781
(727) 544-2284

Community Health Centers at Tarpon Springs
301 Disston Avenue
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
(727) 944-3828

Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center
1344 22nd Street South
St. Petersburg, FL 33712
(727) 821-6701

For more information on hours and services, you can also log on to www.chcpinellas.org/.

Friday, March 27, 2009

WE WON $250,000 ad campaign!!!!!!

Still in total shock!!! But WE WON!!!! Marketing contest, sponsored by Malcolm Productions, Teasdale Advertising, Tampa Tribune, WFLA, Tampa Bay Business Journal and lots of other very cool sponsors!

We're getting a $250,000 ad campaign! This is totally a dream come true.

Totally couldn't have done it without our super-talented staff, especially Pat Largo and Jennifer Steele.

And of course, our very awesome cheering squad:
Fred Soriano
Jackie and Dave Simpson
Pam Butler
Teresa Morrow
Edie Farkas
Nancy ... can't remember last name!

Some very cool companies were out there, pitching their products, too. They're all invited to be in our ads!

--Ester Venouziou

Thursday, March 26, 2009

School's back in session ... virtually

In the middle of everything else in my life, i.e. clients' projects, running 911 calls (full time job #1) and taking care of my husband (full time job #2), school started up again for me this past week.

Yep. I'm 36, and still going to school. I am in valiant pursuit of the elusive Master of Fine Arts degree in writing. I have fantasies of being published, you see, and in the meantime I'll further my education while waiting for the six-figure book deal to come to my door.

I may get all the way to my doctorate before that happens. Sigh.

But it's an online program, for now, and quite intensive. My husband calls it "fake" school, and wonders why I had to get myself a cute new book bag when I only have to go down the hallway and sign on to my computer to go to class. Men never understand these things.

It's not fake at all, it's just virtual reality. And for those of us who have busy lives and haven't yet gotten the hang of juggling work, home and family, an online university program is an easy ball to bounce.

I still sit in a classroom and connect with my fellow students, but my virtual room has no borders. I interact with people worldwide in the same program I am in, and get real-time feedback from instructors. Just like raising your hand in class.

The workload is the same, but I found out that time management is an absolutely essential ingredient. You have to make yourself do the work, because there is no one right over your shoulder to proctor your progress. And to be honest, the latest celeb scandal du jour dominating the T.V. is sometimes more interesting.

And then there's the evil, gruesome draw of the Internet. Hey, you're already sitting there, might as well catch up on Tweets. And browse eBay. And email at least 37 people.

It's not for the weak-willed. (Have I mentioned my addiction to chocolate cake?) But it does seem to be the wave of the future. And for adult learners trying to further their education, going to class on your own time is a viable option.

You still meet people, still get to pick your professor's brain, and at the same time have the benefits of amazing resources that are available out there. Virtually speaking, it's more bang for your buck.

And, where else can you go to class in your underwear and still fully participate? Not that I do that, of course ...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

We're finalists!!!!!!!

So a couple of weeks ago, we were reading Creative Tampa Bay's e-newsletter and came across an interesting contest: Present the Perfect Pitch, win a $250,000 ad campaign.

Malcolm Out Loud, a Tampa-based marketing and ad agency, was offering two $250,000 ad campaigns to two companies with the best marketing pitch. The catch? It cost $300 to enter. If we did it by the following Monday. After that, it cost $500 to enter. Everyone who entered would get $3,000 in ads.

We talked it over. "Scam!" "No way!" "Not for real!" "Waste of money!"

... But a $3,000 ad package could help us.

... If we wait and decide to enter later, it costs $200 more.

... and what if we won?!?!!?

We went for it. Yes, it was risky, but we did a little background checking first. We called the media partners they had listed, and confirmed the contest was for real. We called the marketing agency and asked lots of questions.

The application was five questions, about 250 words each, if I recall correctly. They wanted to know what our business was all about, and, as you all know, we LOVE talking about LocalShops1, so we had no trouble with that.

We submitted the entry, paid through PayPal. And then we panicked. What if just wasted $300? In the grand scheme of things, $300 isn't a lot. But it's money we could have used elsewhere, or, better yet, saved.

Yesterday we got a call, telling us we're among the 10 finalists. Which means we get to present LocalShops1, to a panel of judges and an entire audience, at Raymond James stadium next Thursday evening.

No video, no audio. Just us, talking about what we love.

Please wish us luck. And if you have any suggestions, let us know in the next few days. E-mail us through LocalShops1.com.

Thanks. We're all in this together, right?

Ester

Friday, March 20, 2009

A new roof, the painless 'Skylighters' way

I’m not ashamed to admit that I am more apt to notice a good deal on a cute pair of shoes, or the fantastic craftsmanship involved in a novel than, say, the merits of roofers.

In fact, I pretty much ignore the roof. Why pay attention to it unless it falls in on your head?
So when the little water stain on my dining room ceiling started to grow, I did the most logical thing: I pretended it just wasn’t there. When the roof started looking like a sway-backed mare, I stopped wearing my eyeglasses.

My husband, however, had a bit of a Doom’s Day scenario for me involving collapsing rooms, death and destruction. So we had to find a roofer. And of course, being the loyal Local Shopper-ette that I am, I insisted on a local independent business. They had to be superb, reasonably priced and prompt. Tall orders to fill.

Enter Skylighters, LLC of Brandon. They were highly recommended from friends that we trust, so when they came out for a free inspection and estimate, I was right at ease. They created an entire roofing proposal for our house, one that we could live with.
And, they squared away the permits in record time. When the crew showed up to put on the actual roof, they arrived en masse. They spoke and acted professionally (even with my husband standing under their feet, supervising).

Also Skylighters swears by the best of materials. That alone impressed me.
They finished in two days, with minimal mess, and it looks like I have a brand-new house! Even the Manatee county inspector, when he came to check it out, said it was one of the best jobs he had ever seen. Three of my neighbors were wowed enough to ask for their own quotes.
Needless to say, they get a big 5 stars from us!

The company also does solar attic fans, which lower your cooling costs by about 50 percent, blinds and shades, and of course, skylights. They are at 2903 Bell Shoals Road, Brandon, FL 33511. Phone (813) 690-7663, toll-free at (877) 965-2500. Or, you can visit them on the web at www.theskylighters.com.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Covering your fanny, finally!

I had the distinct pleasure of residing in the hospital for a few days, this past December. St. Anthony's, to be exact.
I worked there for five years part-time, as a paramedic in the ER. So I know its every nook and cranny. But I can see how being admitted for most people is a scary experience. None of us like to be poked and prodded, woken every couple of hours by the phlebotomist for blood work and having medical people try to explain things in a language you don't understand.
So being medically educated, I have an advantage over the lay person, which, you would assume, would make my hospital stay easier.
Not even close.
I was a big baby the entire time, weeping inconsolably, being short with the nurses and even throwing some things across the room. I hate needles, I hate to be in bed, I hate to be taken care of. But the worst part?
Having my fanny hang out of the gown.
We've put a man on the moon, grown body parts from stem cells, built a Smart Car and put an entire computer into the palms of our hands. All this technology, and people's fannies are still hanging out of hospital gowns. Seriously.
A Tampa Bay woman has come up with an interesting product that may make flashing your hospital roommate a thing of the past: Patient Scrubs.
Patient Scrubs is the brainchild of Nancy Heart of Sarasota County, who came up with idea after her own hospital experiences.
They are a top and shorty bottoms designed like nursing scrubs, make out of comfortable material, with plastic snaps at the shoulders and pant legs for quick medical intervention should it be needed.
Genius!
Heart is marketing them in the memory of her late husband. The design has gone through a few changes since its inception. And it seems as if she has every angle covered. The snaps are plastic so patients can wear them during radiology procedures like x-rays or MRIs. The pockets are designed with access for wearing cardiac monitors, and to make room for indwelling catheters like dialysis shunts and central intravenous lines. She makes them in various sizes from adult patients all the way down to wee ones. Good for hospitals and long-term home health care patients, but I'm also thinking assisted living facilities, nursing homes, one-day surgery centers and rehab places.
They're affordable at around $38 per set. I might get a set to keep just in case I ever have to stay in the hospital again. My fanny will be covered, finally. Visit Nancy Heart's website for more information at www.patientscrubs.com.

Friday, March 13, 2009

So not all the news is bad ...

Yes, we've been in the financial quagmire since about 2007. Especially here in Florida, where the foreclosure rate, the ridiculous homeowners' insurance fees and the ever-growing unemployment population have given newscasters something to rant about other than hurricanes.
Not to mention the businesses closing, the national chains that have gone belly-up, and the 500 or so lay-offs that are announced everyday. Add in the banking bail-out and the picture was looking bleak there for awhile.
There many finally be a smidgen of good news on the forefront: Businesses are starting to come back into Florida. Tampa Bay, even. Brighthouse Networks is hiring about 400 people, says their website. Temp agencies are starting to need applicants again. AT&T will add 3,000 employees this year, some of them locally.
And just this week it was announced that an extended stay hotel is being built in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg. Menna Development will break ground this summer on the 120-room hotel near Fifth Avenue South and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street South, in the area near Bayfront Medical Center and Tropicana Field. Planners say that it will have an urban architecture and be about seven stories. They'll turn back the sheets somewhere in early 2010.
Amenities will include shuttle and limousine services, pool and fitness center. Many hope it well help to revitalize the Midtown area, and bring some much-needed foot traffic through the doors of our local independent businesses. Good news for our retailers!
This announcement comes on the heels of a few very good days on Wall Street. The Dow was up by several hundred points each day this week, in response to Citigroup announcing that for the first time in months, they were operating at a profit. Since financial stocks have been at the heart of the market collapse, the news is encouraging.
A few good days don't make a trend, though. This could just be one of those bear market rallies that fizzle out as soon as they start. But it does suggest that the winds of change are coming. If people trust the market more, they funnel more money into businesses, which funnel money right back out.
So we may be on the up and up. Let's hope so. Then we can finally go back to worrying over things we actually have control over. Like hurricane season.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Public speaking: I'd rather get the electric chair

You know that dream where everyone is pointing and laughing and you look down and realize that you are completely naked?
Yeah.
They say that dream can be interpreted a lot of ways, one of them being a fear of public speaking, fear of being exposed in front of a bunch of people.
I got to experience this first-hand recently (NOT the naked part) when I was invited to speak to a local author's group about editing and writing. Now, I'm usually a pretty cool customer. Nothing ruffles me too much when it comes to being out in the public eye; after all, most of the time I'm on duty as a paramedic, and that's pretty high-profile. Also, I teach CPR. Can't be shy about doing chest compressions and trying to save a life.
So being invited to talk to the Sarasota Author's Connection this past Monday was not only an honor, but it should have been a piece of cake. I am quite passionate about writing and editing. And, I'm pretty fired up about our local authors. This area boasts some of the best writing talent around, and anything that goes to support them is good with me.
I had lots of notes prepared, since they asked me to speak for an hour. Keynote speaker! Little old me!
My topics were all laid out: different kinds of manuscript editing, the goals of the editor, the precarious relationship between author and editor. I had a few jokes thrown in, and had given the presentation several times to my fellow drivers whizzing by on the Interstate while in the car. I also did a test-run in front of the dog, who was neither impressed nor offended. I had on my nicest Ann Taylor black suit, and actually did my hair for once. I was all set.
And then I stepped out in front of a room full of people. When the applause died down, I was frozen, trapped in the lights.
Like being naked in the dream.
What is it about public speaking that frightens us so? I remember the joke Jerry Seinfeld used to do about phobias and how fear of death was number two compared to speaking in public. Death was number two. How is that possible?
After Monday night, I see how it's entirely possible. While I made it through my presentation, got the points across and (hopefully) answered all of their questions, I was terrified the entire time. Perspiration was rolling down my back, and I'm reasonably sure all of my make-up slid right off onto the floor. I know I stuttered a few times. Once, I knocked the notes cards off the podium and got them jumbled, losing my place.
It's fair to say I'll think twice before presenting again. I'm more of a behind-the-scenes kind of girl, who'd rather put the clients in the spotlight. I'll just hide behind the curtain and make sure they look good. I can do the whole PR thing and promote anybody but myself.
Besides, I've come to the conclusion that I prefer the written word. Talk is cheap.

Support your neighbors. Shop locally.

Here is a blog I wrote for Creative Tampa Bay, a very cool Tampa-based group that's all about working together to make Tampa Bay even cooler than it already is!


Support your neighbors. Shop locally.
By Ester Venouziou, LocalShops1.com founder

I love to shop. I grew up in Brazil, and some of my favorite memories have to do with shopping, mostly with my grandmother and my sister, on Saturday mornings.

We’d go to the produce market, chat with the vendors as we picked up fruits and veggies. Then it was off to a meat market, or to the fish guy. Along the way we usually stopped at the newsstand, where my grandmother picked up the daily paper and maybe a magazine or two, and, if my sister and I had had a good week, we ’d be rewarded with some comic books.

Eventually we’d end up at my parents’ shop: Importadora Jenny, a fabric store named after my mom. I was about 8 or 9 then, and I remember sitting behind the counter, helping wrap up purchases, talking with the customers.

We moved to New Jersey when I was 12, and that all changed.

For the next 15 years or so, shopping meant going to the mall or to the big-box stores. I remember, when I lived in Jacksonville in the mid-1990s every Tuesday was my shopping day. Winn-Dixie and Target and Stein Mart were the regular stops. And then there was the mall. There were two pretty close to where I lived, and I’d go to one one week, the other the next. I don’t know why I even bothered to alternate, because they both had pretty much the same stores. Every week, I’d come home with bags full of things I didn’t need, things I couldn’t afford. What was in those bags I can’t remember. All I know is that shopping had stopped being fun.

• • •

There are many reasons to shop at locally owned, independent places. Studies show that money spent locally, at an indie, is more likely to stay local. On a typical November shopping day, the Tampa Independence Business Alliance reports, if all taxable purchases in Hillsborough County were made at locally owned independent businesses instead of national chains, it wo uld make a $28 million dollar difference to the local economy.

Economics aside, supporting the independents also helps preserve the businesses that link us to the past, the businesses that ensure our communities will retain charm and character to the future.

And shopping at independents is just a lot more fun.

• • •

We launched LocalShops1.com in August 2008. We are a small, grassroots group, dedicate to helping promote independent businesses. It’s always free to browse, free to join and free to get listed.

We’re not saying, never shop at the chains or franchises. We’re simply saying, think before you shop. There are times when shopping at those places makes sense, and yes, you might run into us at Publix or Target sometimes.

We just want to make it easier for people to find their options, so they don’t automatically default to the big-box stores or the malls.

Our goal is to build a network of indie business owners and indie-minded shoppers, and we’re doing that through our Web site, of course, but also by co-hosting neighborhood parties/fundraisers and marketing/business seminars. Former radio jock-turned comedian Pat Largo has been an integral part in all this, as our official spokesman and party host.

We believe in working together with the media, as well as other business and neighborhood groups, to help our local businesses thrive. We re all in this together.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Largo's Old Northwest area up-and-coming

I was pleased to see recent news of the revitalization of the downtown Largo area. With the recent spread of bad mojo surrounding the economy lately – especially the municipal checkbook – it’s refreshing to hear of folks taking an initiative to makes things better.
The “old northwest” district of Largo is a snug little area of older homes and local independent businesses that sometimes gets overlooked. It runs between Highland Avenue and 20th Street NW, above West/East Bay Drive and below 8th Avenue NW, smack in the middle of downtown Largo.
The retailers and restaurants that call it home give it a small-town flavor, complete with the friendly smiles and waves that frankly are missing from a lot of places today. Combine that with free parking, and you get yourself a good shopping day!
After seeing the news report about the revitalization effort on Baynews 9, I took the opportunity to see the area for myself, and walk its brick streets.
This little 1.8 mile corridor is full of old Florida charm, and is the kind of shopping district that instantly takes you miles away, without having to leave home. In addition to the quaint new and old businesses, there are some beautiful historic cottage homes back there – some dating back to the 1800s.
I window-shopped at a couple of the eclectic little shops, inhaled the heavenly smells coming out of the Greek Islands Restaurant and ended up at O’Houston’s Irish Pub, sitting outside and people watching for awhile. It’s nice to see this area getting some well-deserved attention.
Beating the drum for resuscitating the Old Northwest is Joseph Stefko, owner of The Hair Jungle. He’s been the driving force behind trying to revitalize the area, and has already recruited more than 125 businesses in his efforts.
Stefko has a website dedicated to enhancing the area at www.discoverlargo.com.
Visiting there makes a nice afternoon. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The St. Pete Pier's not an albatross for everyone

My first vision of Florida was of the St. Petersburg Pier.
I was three years old, flanked on either side by family, and stood amazed at this huge upside-down building that seemed to be floating right on the water! Pelicans came and ate out of my hand, and people milled around the beautiful atrium. I ate something I'd never had before - grouper - and our restaurant table looked right out onto the turquoise water. It was so close I could touch it.
And that was it, I was in love. But being bound by the confines of a family vacation, the whole lot of us meandering up and down the state, I never got to see the Pier that trip again. (I did get to see the Everglades, which scared me to death, and see my Aunt Minnie get left behind at a truck stop, which tickled me to death.)
But the Pier has always meant "Florida" to me, whether on a postcard or in person. The sign of its angular cut from the airplane window instantly tells me I'm home. And apparently, I'm not alone in that feeling, since the St. Petersburg Pier has become a landmark of sorts for Tampa Bay, iconic in its image the way the Skyway Bridge is.
They hold at least 300 events a year, house many local independent retailers, and boast a view that few places can match.
Now, with the recession looming, the Pier is standing on shaky ground financially. The same saltwater breeze that draws a crowd on hot days has weakened the Pier's approach making costly repairs and ongoing maintenance necessary.
St. Petersburg is facing the reality of a $20 million budget shortfall this year alone. Shoring up the Pier's infrastructure will cost $50 million.
Shutting it down, say city officials, will save taxpayers $1 million right off the bat. An attractive cut, considering that schools and emergency services also have to take a hit.
But the Pier?! Come on, can't we have something? I know visitors dropped off by half this year, and retailers are feeling the pinch. Subsequently, the city lowered rents for failing businesses in a goodwill gesture to keep them open. But still. It's the Pier, for God's sake. Picture the observation deck, and the open-air ballroom. The terrazzo floors.
What on earth would we put on the postcards? Foreclosure signs? Pictures of brush fires? How about the Cone of Uncertainty?
All of these things certainly say Florida, but not like my Pier. As the city banters back and forth about candidates for budget slashing, the Pier is looking better and better to them. Shame we can't just think of a way to draw more business in to bring it back to its once-lucrative stature. We are too quick to axe things.

Hangman

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