Employees at Buca di Beppo in Maitland, Fla., have moved Pope John Paul II's bust to an office near the kitchen, awaiting shipment to the franchise's headquarters.
His former home - a large round table in the "Pope Room" - sits bare.
The pope's death Saturday presented a quandary for the southern Italian family-style restaurant chain, known for its rooms that have as their centerpiece a 1-foot-square glass box containing a painted bust of John Paul II. The table, which can seat between 12 and 18 diners, is the restaurant's most requested by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Last week, the Minneapolis-based restaurant chain removed the pope busts from the dining rooms at all of the company's 90 locations nationwide out of respect for the then-ailing pontiff. The chain has one restaurant in Maryland, in Gaithersburg.
After the pope's death, managers were told to return the busts to the chain's corporate headquarters while a decision is made about what to do next.
"It's out of respect," said Joe Lewis, the Maitland restaurant's general manager. "We're in mourning. The world is in mourning."
Not all of the company's restaurants have a bust of John Paul II - some display previous popes. But those were removed, too.
Jason Smith, a corporate guest services employee, said the chain has fielded dozens of calls from customers, some demanding that John Paul II's bust be removed, others canceling reservations - and still more making reservations and requesting a seat next to the pontiff.
"The whole room is devoted to the pope," Smith said. "Some people look at it as a memorial to him."
The Maitland room's walls are covered in photos and portraits honoring former popes. For instance, there's a black-and-white picture of Pope Giovanni [Pope John] XXIII leaning over a baby carriage. And, a commemorative plate with John Paul II's portrait affixed to the wall. A dozen or so yellow-and-white papal flags also circle the room. The ceiling is painted sky blue with clouds and floating cherubs, reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel.
"Customers book the room a month or so in advance for a Friday night," Lewis said.
While there are dozens of pieces of religious memorabilia throughout restaurant dining rooms - a photo of nuns in bumper cars, a Guardian Angel image, a "Cardinal Room" complete with traditional red socks and hat to honor the Catholic Church's governing group - the restaurant wants to be careful not to offend customers.
The Pope Room will likely display a bust again, but it may not be one of Pope John Paul II, Smith said. Or, it may be a different version of him, a younger version.
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