Larry Munch is the proprietor of Munch’s Sundries & Restaurant, a longtime famous hangout and food port in south St. Petersburg.
It didn’t start out that way, when Munch’s parents started in back in 1952.
“It was just a sundries store,” Munch said. “They used to sell paper supplies -- books, school supplies -- because Lakewood Elementary was across the street at the time.”
The food tradition began small, with just a hot dog machine. Now, Munch’s is a full-fledged restaurant, known for its breakfast, burgers and seafood. Its food has been featured many times from TV shows to news articles.
Since the beginning, Munch said a keen sense for opportunity has been what drove the business.
“My mom and dad used to open at 7 in the morning and work until 10:00 p.m. at night. At the time, my brother and I, we were just babies, we lived across the street,” Munch said. “When there was a lot of construction work being done around here, my mom would make sandwiches, and…take them out to the construction sites and sell them by the sandwich, and sell cans of soda and water and coffee and tea and stuff like that.”
When Munch and his brother were old enough, they started to help out in the family business.
“My parents were here all the time, so my brother and I started when we were young. I think I was probably 14-years-old when I started busing tables and washing dishes, and eventually moved over to cooking. I bought it from my mother 25 years ago. My father passed away, and she was ready to retire so I bought it from her. And I owned it for the last 25 years,” he said.
Munch’s grandfather was a fire captain who found the lot where the restaurant now stands. When Larry’s parents - Dean and Clariece -- got married, the grandfather gave them a down payment to start the sundries store. At that time, Fourth Street S. was the main road between Downtown and Pinellas County’s southern tip.
“There used to be a ferry before the Skyway Bridge and this was one of the last spots,” Munch said. “So from their wisdom and knowledge of the area, this is where they turned out to buy the property at.”
One tradition that has continued throughout the years is the relationship between the restaurant and Lakewood Elementary, which is still across the street.
“Like when they have educational walks, they will come by here and we will supply them with stuff. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. That is actually where my brother and I went to elementary school,” he said. “It (was) an old, Spanish-style school with no air conditioning. There was a playfield… we always used to play kickball, badminton, and tetherball back when we were growing up.”
Customers and employees are also a tradition that has been handed down generation to generation. Munch said a few regular customers have been coming to Munch’s for more than 40 years. One of the long-timers is David West.
“I’ve been coming here probably since 1962,” West said. “Growing up with Mrs. Munch, we used to have a charge account. So we could come in here and eat, and just give her the receipt and walk out the door. So that was great.”
Munch said his servers includes one waitress who retired after working there for 38 years. Of the current crew, many veterans have worked up from bussing tables, waiting six years or more for a spot on the wait staff.
“And now we have another bus girl up that is training and is waiting for her turn to be a server as well,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s like family around here. I love it,” said waitress Carmen Taylor, who will complete her 13th year at Munch’s in August. “My experiences have all been really good, you know, especially since we’ve been on (Food Network’s) ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ and I was actually the waitress on the show. So it’s really increased our tips and our clientele is wonderful. I mean, it’s a great place to work.”
Munch gives a lot of credit for the restaurant’s longevity to his team.
“Family-style restaurants aren’t seen as much, just because it’s getting harder and harder to run them. It takes a lot of time and a lot of employees,” he said. “The employees are what make it. You can be the best restaurant, but if you don’t have good people working it for you, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. So they’re valuable to me.”
Grace Cunningham and Brittany Cravatta are student-journalists attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Media Studies Department. This story was produced as part of the Neighborhood News Bureau class taught by Bernardo Motta in Spring 2017. NNB Graduate Assistants Tyler Gillespie, Zenena Moguel and Indhira Suero Acosta contributed to this story.