Drawing from personal experiences and culture in the ultra-luxury hospitality industry, local restauranteurs are always on the hunt for the most innovative dishes and concepts that will set them apart from the competition.
During the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator’s Hospitality FWD: Spotlighting Cutting-Edge Innovation event held Aug. 31 inside the Shanna and Bryan Glazer JCC’s Tampa campus, several prominent business people explored the evolution of the area’s culinary scene.
The speakers included Chris Southwick, general manager at The Tampa Edition, a 172-room luxury hotel in Tampa’s Water Street; Chon Nguyen, Partner at Proper House Group, which owns the Rooster and the Till restaurant in Seminole Heights; Natalia Levey, founder of Hi Restaurant Group and owner of the St. Pete Central Park Food Hall that’s underway; and Zach Feinstein, CEO of The Feinstein Group, among other players in the space.
Here’s the scoop on the what the movers and shakers had to say about the region and trends: The responses have been edited for clarity.
Southwick on The Edition opening in Tampa last year: “The city has embraced it. We tried to create an experience unlike any other. I was with the Ritz-Carlton for 27 years, and we have a luxury and a lifestyle class. We wanted to have this luxury lifestyle – blend both worlds. From a brand perspective, we are the first second-tier city to have The Edition. I remember initially thinking would this be the right time for Tampa?”
Southwick on the evolution of Tampa as a foodie destination: “The Edition was a small part of it [Tampa’s evolution]. Tampa was getting ready to explode for a long time. When we were in France trying to sell Tampa, I was talking with South American travel agents, and they didn’t know anything about Tampa. I had to show them on a map. I had to explain we have all the things Miami has, but we are better.”
Nguyen on working with the Rooster and the Till restauranteurs: “When I first got involved with them, Rooster and the Till [a modern American neighborhood restaurant] was roughly half the size it is now with 30 seats. I felt a heart and soul in the restaurant. I would eat there all the time. I told them [owners and chefs] if they ever wanted to grow, I wanted to be part of it. I found Nebraska Mini-Mart, our second location, and became part of the team.” Nguyen said he is looking forward to opening Ash, a new restaurant co-owned by renowned chef Ferrell Alvarez that will open in Water Street Tampa.
Feinstein on his career journey: “I worked for corporate at Burger King and was the youngest district manager in the company’s history. I’m from Dunedin and bought The Black Pearl [a high-end French restaurant]. Here we are today, four restaurants later and three in the pipeline. I’m not a chef, but my background is in macroeconomics and restaurant operations. I got to take the standard operating procedures in corporate and apply them. Our profit margins 8 to 10 times more than the industry standard.”
Feinstein purchased The Black Pearl in 2014. He later opened upscale craft cocktail bar Sonder Social Club in Dunedin and two locations of the Living Room Restaurant and Lounge in the Tampa Bay area. Feinstein also serves as a consultant, helping restaurants roll out a commission-based pay model for front-of-house workers.
Feinstein on employee compensation: “When the new minimum wage law passed, higher wages were a good thing, but it means prices would rise. There’s an operator in Seattle called Fire and Vine Hospitality that has pioneered a commission model where you drop the wage and charge a service fee. The servers and bartenders would get to keep all the tips. At The Black Pearl, we haven’t lost an employee in 19 months. In our whole system, our turnover rate is less than 20 percent.”
Levey on curating different restaurant concepts in Sarasota: “We have created every restaurant from personal experience. For the Speaks Clam Bar, my husband was from New York and would go to clam bars. We also used to travel a lot to the New England area in the summer. For Kojo, we put together our favorite Asian dishes and consulted with chefs. Bar Hana [Kojo’s adjacent sister restaurant] was the brainchild of our team this year. We just opened New York-style deli [Palm Avenue Deli] and have leaned into the Jewish heritage and recipes my husband grew up eating.”
Levey also highlighted how she’s focused on bringing mental health wellness practices into the workplace to create an open and welcoming environment, and help employees manage stress.
Levey previously said Kojo and Speaks Clam Bar would be two tenants in the future St. Pete Central Park Food Hall that’s under construction at 551 Central Ave.