Here's Lili, Queen of the Florida Devil Crab entrepreneurs. We had just turned south from Ybor City and were heading down to Bradenton when we spotted her tiny white scooter-style van by the side of Route 41 South.
"Hey, Mama, what can I get you?" A high energy huckster in the best possible sense, Lili has the patter and jive of the pro she is. She told us she had started up and sold a handful of businesses over the years, always taking a year off before starting the next.
This time her aim is to revive the roadside vendor tradition of Ybor City, selling deep fried devil crabs, crab empanadas, meat-stuffed potatoes, ( based on her Mom Lidia's recipes,) French fries, and, in the works, a range of desserts. Her wagon? An Indian-made white "van", brand name Bajaj, serves as vending point, kitchen and vehicle.
"The Cubans coming into this country, many of them, are educated professionals, " says Lili. "But they can't get good work here the minute they arrive. They're janitors making $6 an hour. I want to offer some of them the opportunity to become self-sufficient, owning and running a franchise selling devil crab."
Lili and her family came to Ybor City from Cuba in 1970, when she was five. Her parents had been running a grocery store. Castro's people seized the family's stove, and their sewing machine. In the States her parents worked at the Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory, as well as at other jobs.
Right now Lili is training her cousin Maribelle, over from Cuba just three months, and a young friend in Florida just a month. They are intently trying to learn the customer chatter Lily has perfected--their English is raw--along with the fry technique. Maribelle bends over the fry pot, and Nomar is set to doing prep work in Lili's brother's restaurant. The little white vending van sits out front of his place, Monday through Friday, 1-6.
At $3 a pop, the plump crab croquettes are beyond good, and far better than those I praised at Columbia Restaurant. " Of course," says Lili," when I tell her that.
"These are made with lotta, lotta, lotta Cuban love. ( Three times, three times.) That's the secret."
Did I mention that Lili Peguero is Cuban?
( To buy a franchise email Lili at email@example.com)