Wooing voters, President chooses a sandwich the city wants to designate as an official "cultural asset"...
In central Florida on Saturday afternoon to continue his post-Convention victory lap with a two-day bus tour, President Obama made a surprise visit to the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. He spent about 45 minutes chatting and posing for photos after placing a large to-go order for five of the house's specialty sandwiches, the iconic triple-meat and cheese Cuban sandwich. The President himself had the more elaborate and sweet Honey Cuban, on the advice of patrons and owner Willy Barionuevo, a Cuban immigrant who has owned the very popular joint on North Armenia Avenue for twenty years.
The President rolled in aboard Ground Force One at 1:40 PM after working up an appetite at a huge rally at St. Petersburg College in Seminole, where he was introduced by former Governor Charlie Christ.
"Hello everybody!" President Obama crowed as he entered to cheers. "I'm ready to eat!"
Standing by the counter, clad in, the President huddled with Barionuevo for menu advice, according to employee Maria Hernandez, who has worked there from the start.
"What are your specialty sides?" President Obama asked, and told Barionuevo he'd like "whatever else you think will make for an outstanding lunch."
The small crowd of patrons listening in shouted out that the President's own sandwich should be the Honey Cuban: The shops bills itself as "Home of the ORIGINAL Honey Cuban." Demonstrating his ability to respond to voter concerns, Mr. Obama complied.
"The President took it all the way," Hernandez said of his sandwich.
The standard Cuban is ham, roast pork, salami and Swiss cheese, topped with mustard and pickle on Cuban bread, then hot pressed. A Honey Cuban has the addition of butter and honey, and the President also added mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato. The President's sandwich was a Large, and cost $5.08 with tax, Hernandez said.
The President also ordered a bunch of empanadas--small meat pies--which are "very popular," Hernandez said. The President's beverage was cafe con leche.
"I gotta pay for all this," the President insisted, though Barionuevo told him it was on the house. He paid cash despite repeated protests.
"He left a very good tip," Hernandez said, and also posed for photos with the employees. "He was simple, a very nice person. Everybody was thrilled."
Mr. Obama's visit was the first from a sitting president to the shop, Hernandez said. The city of Tampa is considering making the Cuban its official sandwich, at the urging of the city's Citizens Advisory Committee on Cultural Assets, so perhaps the presidential order will add gravitas to the effort.
Hernandez is also a Cuban immigrant, and discussed the President's visit using a mixture of Spanish and English; she'll be voting for Mr. Obama, she said. The shop's regular patrons come from many ethnic backgrounds, she said, in addition to Cubans. "There are a lot of Italians, too."
As the President waited for his order, he worked the room, going from table to table. Secret Service had arrived fifteen minutes ahead of his visit to lock the place down and screen the diners, Hernandez said, which included leading dogs through the shop, and standing by as the to-go order was prepared.
"Hey man, what's your name?" the President said as he shook hands with a young couple seated a a table, adding "Hi pretty lady" as he greeted the female half.
Dan Gemmell, 63, a retried Army major, sat with his German wife Maria, according to pool, and announced that he's a coveted undecided voter, though he chose Mr. Obama in '08. Why the change of heart now?
"I'm a Roman Catholic," Gemmell said. "Overall I think he's a great guy. I just have trouble with some of his issues, the birth control and gay marriage thing."
Meanwhile, the President, who frequently discusses his own graying hair, had stopped to pat the head of a young boy with a Mohawk.
"I like that hair," he said. The boy's mother told the President "I support you 100 percent" and the President spun to address his press pool.
"You hear that people?" he called out. "Anyone taking notes?"
The President's two-day bus tour through Florida's crucial central corridor along the 1-40 was specifically designed to give him the chance to make a personal appeal to locals, said Campaign spokesman Jen Psaki. Mr. Obama took Florida in '08, but it is no longer a sure bet, and Mitt Romney campaigned there two days after the GOP convention.
"The President absolutely loves bus tours because you’re not getting on and off of a plane. You're actually spending time in the state," Psaki said.
And choosing the Sunshine State swing was a no brainer for other reasons: "Voters can register until October 9th in Florida," Psaki said, not mentioning the current controversy over voter IDs.
"And in the state, we've been outspent by Republicans and the Republican super PACs by about $10 million," Psaki said. Presidential stops via bus are a great way to get loads of free advertising from local media.
Outside the shop, the President greeted a happy crowd gathered behind a ropeline before climbing back aboard his huge bus, heading for Kissimmee for another campaign rally at the Civic Center. His Florida bus tour continues on Sunday.
Info: West Tampa Sandwich Shop is at 3904 North Armenia Avenue Tampa, FL, 33607. Phone: (813) 873-7104.
*Sandwich photo courtesy of West Tampa Sandwich Shop; second photo by Obama for America; others by pool