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Blind Tiger: A Hip Taste of Ybor Opens in West Park Village

Call him Westchase’s Knight in Shining Armor.

Only he’s dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

Or the cavalry coming to the rescue.

Only he’s riding a tiger.

Whatever you call him, Roberto Torres is bringing a taste of edgy Ybor City to suburban Westchase, specifically in the empty storefront that once held Starbucks.

Raise your coffee mug in a toast. With Torres’ arrival, the new year offers a new beginning for the West Park Village Town Center. One of Tampa Bay’s friendliest entrepreneurs, the owner of Blind Tiger Café is arriving just in time to spark the West Park Village Town Center back to life, adding needed foot traffic to its surrounding storefronts.

It’s an independent coffee shop specializing in coffee, tea and textiles.

You read that right.

The Blind Tiger Cafe actually began with an emphasis on Torres’ clothing line, Black and Denim. Over time, Torres’ business model shifted as he added high quality coffee to his Ybor store front to pull in potential customers. “It’s a blend between retail and food and beverage,” he said.

At the front of the Ybor store sits Blind Tiger’s coffee bar. The walls surrounding customer seating display its line of T-shirts, hats, socks and mugs, all featuring the café’s catchy logo, a blindfolded tiger.

It’s a nod to the 1920s speakeasy, often nicknamed a blind tiger, where illegal alcohol was served up in coffee mugs – a brew so potent it could, it was claimed, lead to blindness.

The name ably captures the unique marketing twist of Blind Tiger. The coffee shop, which will sell sandwiches, acai bowls, pastries and salads, will also have an alcohol license permitting the sale of beer and wine.

Two brews meeting two popular Westchase tastes.

At its heart, however, Blind Tiger is an independent coffee shop.

“We try to lend a very friendly appeal to coffee,” said Torres. “We’re interested in creating an anchor for community.”

His company now even roasts its own coffee beans in north Hyde Park. “We’ve been doing it for three and a half years now.”

West Park Village represents Blind Tiger’s sixth Tampa Bay location. After starting in 2010 in Ybor, Torres opened a Seminole Heights store in 2014, a store in the Tampa Bay Times Building in 2016 and another in Soho the next year. His company employs 24, aiming to pay, with tips, a living wage of $25,000-30,000 annually. The new West Park Village store will bring Torres’ number of employees over 30.

Blind Tiger Barista Cyrus Frioli touted Torres as “a very supportive boss.”  Frioli previously worked in a coffee shop in St. Pete, which Frioli still recommends to folks. But what’s special that keeps the barista working at Blind Tiger?

“We’re a roaster. That’s unique.”

Frioli also sees her boss as an entrepreneur building something big. Most independent coffee shops find their niche and stick to it. Torres, in contrast, is always expanding his baristas’ palettes by introducing other coffees. For Frioli, however, what’s even more exciting is the promise of new Blind Tiger Cafes. “He’s always expanding,” she said.

While keeping the coffee shop’s core mission – coffee, tea and textiles, Torres, however, doesn’t aim to clone the gritty urban feel of the original Ybor store everywhere.

Before opening, Torres visited Westchase to get an understanding of the community and its residents.

“We’re trying to have a more sophisticated appeal,” he said of his West Park store.

Its color palette will consist of grays, blacks and whites. “We want to make it cozy,” he added. “We want to highlight the elements that make the brand.”

For Torres, Blind Tiger aims to create a strong sense of place flooded with an enthusiastic customer base. “We’re trying to deliver legendary customer service to everyone.”

Torres’s skill at assimilating his coffee shops into their surrounding communities is perhaps borne of personal experience. He was born in the country of Panama, one of three children of a dad who worked as a supermarket stocker and a cab driver and a mom who has worked as support staff for four decades at the same law firm. For college, Torres came to the states to earn dual majors in accounting and finance from Florida State University.

The plan, he said, was to return to Panama. “Immigration from Panama is rare,” he said. “Life in Panama is really good.”

But stay he did. “There is something about the American Dream that is very enticing,” he said.

Now calling Seminole Heights home, Torres quite active in the Tampa Bay business community, offering advice to young entrepreneurs and coaching those involved in start ups.

And in late December or early January, once a specially ordered espresso machine arrives from Italy, his latest business venture in West Park Village will open its doors. “We’re extremely excited,” he said. “We’re infinitely blessed that Starbucks proved the model for a coffee shop there for 15 years.”

And a traditional coffee shop it is, with pour overs, chemex, French press and cold brews.

But no frappucinos. “That’s not coffee,” Torres said with a teasing laugh.

What does the new year in a new place hold?

Torres is absolutely bullish on the town center and sees Blind Tiger thriving there, an integral community partner.

A West Park and Westchase anchor.

“All we have to do is serve a quality product and treat people right,” he said confidently, “And we’ll be fine.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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