PHOTOS: U.S. Rep. Crist tours LGBTQ-owned small businesses in St. Petersburg

ABOVE: Love Food Central owners Valerie Manzoros (L) and Cindy Toda (R) meet with U.S. Rep Charlie Crist (C) Oct. 7. Photo by Dylan Todd.

ST. PETERSBURG | U.S. Rep Charlie Crist toured LGBTQ-owned small businesses along St. Petersburg’s Central Ave. Oct. 7, discussing COVID-19 concerns and more at the beginning of LGBTQ History Month.

Crist represents Florida’s 13th congressional district, which covers Pinellas County from Clearwater through his native St. Petersburg. The tour was conceptualized with Michael G. Batista, his senior constituent advocate and LGBTQ liaison.

“These were informal visits, neighbors checking in on neighbors,” Batista explains. “It was also a way for the congressman to take these experiences back with him to Washington, where the future of small business relief is still being negotiated.”

Crist’s tour began at Love Food Central, where owners Valerie Manzoros and Cindy Toda have served vegan and gluten-free comfort food since 2016. After closing for nearly two months and subsequently transitioning to contactless pickup, they began allowing customers that wished to do so to order food inside that very day.

“This is our next step in slowly opening back up,” Manzoros says. “This will allow us to have a little more interaction.”

The restaurant’s success is due to widespread community support and its inclusivity, she adds, noting that it was an honor to welcome Crist. “We like to be a part of the community and do our part for the community,” she says. “I feel lucky that we’re still open and that we’re moving in the right direction.”

The congressman subsequently visited ZaZoo’d, which celebrated seven years in business last month. The St. Petersburg staple offers an eclectic variety of retail goods, event planning and interior design services.

“It was awesome to have Charlie Crist stop by ZaZoo’d and show compassion for how difficult this pandemic has been on small businesses,” owner David Fischer reflects. “While showing genuine compassion for how much COVID has negatively impacted ZaZoo’d, he solicited ideas for future government assistance ideas.”

The Blue Cottage was next, owned by designer Jerry Hobson. The home goods boutique has offered retail and interior design services since 2018 and celebrates the color blue, “associated with freedom, intuition, imagination, inspiration and sensitivity.”

Hobson called Crist’s visit a pleasure. The two discussed their commitment to the community they serve and more, detailing the representative’s adherence to the Golden Rule, the principle of treating others as you want to be treated.

The tour concluded at St. Petersburg’s Atlas Body + Home, the men’s lifestyle shop offering apparel, accessories and more owned by Tony Loeffler and Michael Griffin. Meeting with Crist allowed Loeffler to share that he believes “brick and mortar retail stores got lost in the mix” when it came to federally-funded COVID-19 relief.

“I wanted to stress that to him,” Loeffler says, “and I definitely appreciate the attention and support. We love our community and have a great clientele. We’ve gotten a little help from the city and the county which has been a lifeline, but it still feels a little scary. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

While the federal government continues to debate additional financial assistance related to COVID-19, Batista says Crist remains committed to fighting for all of his constituents.

“The congressman truly wants to hear from small business owners on how their businesses are doing at this point in the pandemic and their plans for the future,” he says. “This perspective gave him a more in-depth idea on how to fight for additional funding and how best to work for the people of our district.”

Watermark toured the businesses along with Crist and his team. View our photos by Dylan Todd below:

For more information about Love Food Central, ZaZoo’d, The Blue Cottage and Atlas Body + Home, visit,, and To learn more about or to contact U.S. Rep Charlie Crist, visit

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