He is considered the wise sage of Ybor City, the protective older brother. And if you live anywhere along Fourth Avenue, he is your personal surveillance camera.
Cephas Gilbert of Cephas' Hot Shop is many things to all people. Hand-painted signs at his neighborhood restaurant declare his mantras, the most prominent being:
"Respect is due whether you are black or white."
Born in the St. Mary parish of Jamaica, Gilbert entered the Merchant Marines at age 17 and spent 13 years traveling the world. A cycling and skydiving enthusiast, the wiry man is constantly in motion. But his real passion is health, and spreading the good word to his customers.
Rooted on the corner of Fourth Ave and 17th Street for 34 years, Gilbert is a naturalist in a wild, urban jungle. His lush backyard is host to about 150 species of tropical fruits and vegetables. He distributes his ample supply of health knowledge as freely he dispenses produce.
In 2006, a faulty coffee maker led to a fire that caused serious damage to his restaurant, and Gilbert did not have insurance. After the fire, he operated from a makeshift hut adjacent to the eatery and his home, selling his trademark Caribbean fare, aloe shakes and tamarind tea from a window.
However, a little over a year ago, Gilbert went into quasi-hibernation when his restaurant was shut down by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation for failure to renew his business license.
Though he suspects that he was reported to the authorities by a disgruntled customer who had been refused free food and drinks, he acknowledges that things had slipped through the cracks since the fire, and that there were violations.
Cephas' Hot Shop is basically a two-man operation, composed of Gilbert and the humble Jamaican Bongo, who assists with much of the cooking.
Starting with daily early-morning trips to several markets for fresh produce, aloe leaves, chicken, goat, oxtail and necessities, the duo works throughout the day, and Gilbert long into the evening. Open six days a week, he has had little time and money to rehabilitate the burned restaurant.
But after the business was shut down, hundreds of people rallied, especially the Ybor community, to raise money and donate services to get the Rasta Man rolling again.
"He's a trusted staple in this community," longtime resident Kim Magic said. "He crosses all ethnic boundaries with acceptance and pools people together."
Commercial Partners Realty and the Dohring Group's Josh Dohring organized a benefit at Crowbar last September. Hundreds showed up, including local musicians Johnny Cakes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso, Bangarang and The Growers. They all played for free.
A GoFundMe page helped raise the estimated $15,000 needed to bring the restaurant up to code. Friends and customers also walked up throughout the day, offering donations.
Karma won, presenting itself on a larger scale when Hollywood director Brad Furman was cruising Tampa to scout locations for The Infiltrator. Stumbling upon the property, he stopped in and chatted, sipped an aloe drink and eventually revealed his identity.
It was the perfect match. Furman decided to shoot several scenes at the location back in April. Rental fees for the eatery, which was turned into a bodega, and use of its tropical backyard contributed to the rehab costs.
"Good things happen if you reach out and you care. But also, life is a road — long, short, rocky, steep," Gilbert said. "Some people take short roads, which don’t bring anything. Long roads bring sweat, blood, knowledge and experience. I advise people to take the long road."
On July 31, the restaurant reopened to the public for the first time in nine years.
The once-steady stream of cars is slowly reappearing as word spreads that the local icon is accepting customers again. Ginger and tamarind tea, beer (lots of cold Red Stripe), wine and coconut water are served, and credit cards will be accepted shortly. On any given day, patrons like former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and word-of-mouth tourists can be found slurping Gilbert’s beloved shakes and shooting the breeze.
"My main thing in life is to build community, and especially health if people want to help themselves," Gilbert said. "In life, if you reach out, it's like planting a seed, and depending on what type of seed you plant, it can take 90 days, nine months or a decade before you can reap that seed."
After nearly a decade, his seed has sprouted.
"Life is what you make it, and if you reach out, you can have anything."