Gainesville will be saying goodbye to a token Midtown establishment — one that has been fending off students’ hangovers with their sandwiches for more than 20 years — Sunday.
Since 1999, Larry’s Giant Subs has been a refuge for students flocking in from Library West or Midtown bars seeking a midnight snack. The owner, UF alumna Sarah Whitfield, was one of those students herself.
In 2005, Whitfield, 33, started working there as a freshman and stayed all throughout her college career. But when she got a job working an hour and a half away, she couldn’t bear to quit.
“I came in to tell my boss I was going to have to put in my three week’s notice because I was moving away, and I just couldn’t do it,” Whitfield said. “I just loved Larry’s that much and so, I kind of knew that I wanted to buy it.”
However, the opportunity to purchase the sandwich shop came a lot quicker than she expected. In 2016, Whitfield used all the money she had been saving over the years and purchased Larry’s after she finished graduate school at UF.
Though most of Gainesville is just starting to come to terms with Larry’s closure, the shop has been preparing to close for about a year, Whitfield said. No concrete timeline had been set as to when Larry’s would have to shut down, so the shop continued to operate on a month-to-month lease. In February, Larry’s received a two-week notice regarding the termination of its lease, causing Whitfield to fight to extend the lease until the end of May.
News of the pandemic wasn’t the biggest factor in their decision to not extend the lease further, Whitfield said.
“The landlords are both in their 80s and 90s, so very much this was going to happen eventually,” Whitfield said. “If COVID-19 hadn’t hit we would’ve been a lot more likely to consider trying to fight through the summer and maybe fight to stay a little bit longer, but right now if students aren’t going to be in classes, it’s harder for us to do business.”
But to Whitfield’s surprise, COVID-19 has not kept members of the community from coming to show their support. Goodbyes have been the most emotional from regular customers, people who consider Larry’s a place they can identify with, Whitfield said.
One customer, in particular, UF alumni David Steinfeldt, has been going to Larry’s since his junior year at UF in 2018. Ever since his first trip there, he’s regretted not discovering it sooner, Steinfeldt said.
“When you walk in there’s a smoky smell that overwhelms you, it’s almost too much,” Steinfeldt said. “It just feels like it belongs in a college town.”
On Monday, Steinfeldt discovered the news of Larry’s definitive closure after an announcement from its Twitter account. In response, he pledged to give everyone who retweeted his message five dollars if he ate there fewer than five times before it closes.
As the child of two UF alumni, Steinfeldt finally understands what his parents mean when they say Gainesville is losing a lot of its charm, he said.
“Gainesville is so great because it is a college town and that’s something you don’t get a lot of throughout the state of Florida,” Steinfeldt said. “And I feel like what makes Gainesville great is being taken away just for some more apartments that could quite honestly be built anywhere.”
The overarching feeling surrounding the situation is understandable but sad, Whitfield said. To her, Larry’s will always be a part of Gainesville, but she hopes customers will find a new place open at 3 a.m. to call their own.
“I hope they remember us and I hope they remember how much they love Larry’s,” Whitfield said. “But I hope they really do find somewhere that they love just as much.”
Contact Lonnie Numa at [email protected] and on follow them on Twitter @lonaald.