'Pizza Man" leans against the counter at Starbucks in Centro Ybor, smiling as usual, and issues hearty salutations to a couple of clerks. He orders an Americano — three shots of Espresso mixed with water in a large cup.His name is Asres "Oscar" Gesses, and he's a walking, breathing bit of the American dream. Oscars sells pizza to Ybor City revelers from a small space he leases from the Italian Club. The smiles are free. Folks who frequent the Seventh Avenue strip have dubbed him Pizza Man.
Twenty-two years ago, the notion of being a successful entrepreneur in the U.S. was the furthest thing from Gesses' mind. He was on the lam, fleeing from his native Ethiopia to avoid the "Red Terror" purges of a military dictatorship. After a two-year stopover in Sudan, Gesses made his way to Tampa with the aid of Lutheran Services of Florida, a Tampa-based human care agency that in the last two decades has helped more than 150,000 people build new lives in freedom.
Oscar is one of its prime success stories.
He wears his gratitude to Lutheran Services on his sleeve. And he's giving something back. Oscar donated $2,500 to the organization last year. He also goes out of his way to hire new refugees and pass along to them the skills and wisdom he has acquired in America.
"[Lutheran Services] are the best people," says Oscar. "I owe them so much. I gave two months rent in one of my houses to someone who relocated from the Sudan. I tell [newer refugees] I came with nothing and this organization helped me. I pay them back. It makes you a better citizen. You work hard. Nothing is smooth in life."
A student activist who was shot twice during demonstrations in Ethiopia, Gesses got out of the country before the infamous famine that began in 1984. He was destined to be his own boss. As soon as he reached safe haven, he applied for refugee status in the U.S. During his two-year stay in Sudan, Gesses opened his own tailoring shop.
After a brief stopover in New York, Gesses arrived in Tampa around midnight on March 21. He was whisked to a two-bedroom house in the 2500 block of N. Armenia Avenue, which he shared with a Kenyan refugee.
"It was amazing," he says.
He'd never cooked on a stove before, only over a wood flame. He'd never used a refrigerator. Lutheran Services set him up with clothes, food, a small amount of spending money and English language class for a couple of months. Oscar first got a job cleaning and packing shrimp — "I stunk on the bus," he says with a laugh — and then putting hot egg rolls onto a tray and into a freezer.
He landed a gig in housekeeping at Tampa General Hospital, and soon added another shift at St. Joseph's in Central Processing. Oscar worked 16-hour days and saved as much money as he could.
In '88, he moved to Washington, D.C., mostly because there was a larger Ethiopian population there. "I learned how to own a business with a small amount of money," he says in his heavily accented English. "People would sell hot dogs and things like that. It looked good to me."
Nine months later, he was back in Tampa, driving a cab. For five years he scrimped every buck he could. Finally, in '93, he opened his first coffee shop, Kaffa, on Busch Boulevard. Oscar then got a little taste of an American nightmare. In less than a year he declared bankruptcy. "$30,000 down the tubes," he says.
Undaunted, he returned to taxi driving and moved to Ybor City.
Soon enough, he was back on the entrepreneur trip again, this time renting a trailer in an empty lot at Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, where he sold burgers, fries, hotdogs, Italian sausages and such.
This was in '94, when Ybor City became the hub of Tampa Bay nightlife. Business was good, but Oscar wanted something a bit more established. So he rented a 200-square-foot space in the Italian Club, borrowed $500 for a pizza oven and ingredients (bought at Sam's Club) and opened up his window.
"One night a guy told me my pizza was terrible," Oscar says. "So I worked on improving the taste. I went on the Internet and got information to make my recipe better. I bought better cheese and sauce. I made my own dough."
In '97, the city barred outdoor vendors from the Ybor strip. Oscar already had his place, and business got better.
Oscar got a taste of the American legal system last year. Tampa police busted him twice for selling pizza after 3 a.m. City law says businesses that serve liquor must close by 3, and even though Oscar's pizza window serves no alcohol, the Italian Club has a license. Oscar continued to dish out slices — post-3 a.m. sales were a big part of his business — despite warnings to stop. He says he was confused: Why would the ordinance apply to him?
After some convoluted court appearances, Gesses pleaded no contest to one count of violating city code. He paid $100 in court costs.
These days, Oscar sees his past legal snafus as basically no big deal. After all, spending some time in city-ordinance hell pales in comparison to dodging a bloodthirsty, dissident-squashing military regime.
If anything, the experience has made him more American. "I came to Ybor and made a success," he says. "Sometimes, the bigger guys want you gone. But you have to have competition. This is my country now, too."
Lutheran Services of Florida is at 2700 W. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Suite 308, Tampa, 813-875-1202.