On the night of Jan. 9, a small appliance almost destroyed an Ybor landmark. Cephas Gilbert has been serving traditional West Indian cuisine and world-famous aloe shakes at his Hot Shop on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 18th Street for 24 years, in a corner building that once housed a pool hall. An electrical fire blazed out of control overnight, causing considerable damage to the building's interior.
Two days later, taking a break from the clean-up effort, Cephas didn't seem too fazed by the experience. "A little coffee maker burned up the place," he said. "But everything is looking good." That humble, positive attitude is part of what has drawn Ybor denizens and Tampa residents to the Hot Shop for years. Sure, the food is good, but Cephas himself is why people keep showing up.
Cephas' acrobatic stunts — usually designed to convince his diners of the amazing health benefits of aloe shakes — are wacky and, well, impressive for a man in his 50s. (For my benefit, he leapt from a table and a cabinet to perch on a ledge 10 feet off the floor.) He doesn't do them for laughs, though, or to showboat. He cares about his customers and wants to help them take care of themselves.
My first visit to Cephas' Hot Shop was just this past year, but it certainly left an impression on me. Within minutes, he dropped two of the bitter, healthful aloe smoothies he's famous for — free of charge — and parked his imposing, militant-den-mother presence next to the table until we had consumed enough to satisfy him. When I paid, he chastised me for not eating all the vegetables on the plate, shaking his head in dismay. On return visits, I've made a point to finish my veggies first and gulp down a shake every so often, abiding by Cephas exhortation to "just slam it, man!"
Although one local resident described the interior damage as "ghastly," Gilbert looks to the future, seeing potential in the tragedy. "My kitchen is not hurt, my roof is not hurt," he says. "It's only the dining quarters that are damaged." When asked when he'll be able to start serving food again, he confidently proclaims, "two months, no problem."
When asked about money needed to rebuild, Cephas claims "it's being taken care of," but Ybor Chamber Of Commerce President Tom Keating thought the situation might be more dire. "He told me he didn't have insurance," said Keating, mentioning that the damage seemed more extensive than Cephas described.
It's going to be difficult to replicate the former ragged glory of the décor. The Hot Shop's 12-foot walls were covered in 20 years of photographs, posters, autographs and memorabilia — here a painted tryptich depicting MLK, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X, there a Jamaica tourism ad featuring a buxom woman. Hand-painted signs stated "respect due whether black or white" and "together in struggle."
Ybor neighbor Garrett Garcia is trying to get the word out after Cephas let him tour the gutted interior (then sent him home with a gift of two big stalks of spiky aloe). Garcia has started organizing a benefit concert and believes that a lot of Ybor and Tampa residents will pitch in. "He's had a big impact" Garcia said, "so there are a lot of people who want to help him out."
The building was damaged, but the icon still remains, exuberant and positive, with a vitality that belies his age. If anyone can emerge from this tragedy stronger and wiser, it will be Cephas, with the help of the large community of people he has impacted over the past three decades. Even the day after my visit, while on the phone asking him about the fire, he took time out to spread some of his love, saying "you move me, man." Right back at ya, Cephas.
Cephas Hot Shop, 1701 E 4th Ave., Ybor City, 813-247-9022.