A speakeasy disguised as a typical laundromat and a bar inspired by the nostalgia of old Floridian motels are some of the most popular foodie destinations Stephen Schrutt has introduced in St. Petersburg.
Schrutt is the founder of the St. Petersburg-based Hunger Thirst Group, known as HTG, and is the mastermind behind the Park and Rec, No Vacancy, Dirty Laundry and The Avenue concepts, as well as the soon-to-open Asian fusion restaurant Good Fortune.
“I like to tell a story with my places so guests not only feel welcomed, but they experience something they’ll remember and want to come back often,” Schrutt said. “I take inspiration from my life and what I’ve been exposed to. I’ve worked around restaurants and bars for 30 years, and my dad had me around his friends’ places growing up.”
Schrutt was born in New York and lived in California before his parents relocated to Tampa, where he spent most of his childhood.
His first job was in the restaurant business and he worked in the industry until his mid 20s when he pursued other career paths; however, his journey has come full circle, as he returned to the hospitality industry and started crafting unique concepts.
“I was getting ready to announce my third concept at the time, and I felt like creating an actual hospitality company/brand that all of my places could be known together would help establish them in the community,” he said about officially forming HTG.
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“I love and know I’m obsessed with the creative process – it’s what drives and excites me every day, and it keeps me motivated. I find inspiration in art, music, fashion and design, and most of the time what I feel is missing in the city, so I enjoy bringing something unique and exciting for everyone to enjoy,” Schrutt said.
“Usually, I create a concept and then find a place for it that I think is the right location, but I’ve also looked at spaces and then gone home and started creating for that specific space. Once I sit down to create, there’s no off switch for me, I’ll work on it day and night, everything from decor, floor plans, menu outlines and even specials and entertainment.”
One of the more recent concepts to open from HTG is Dirty Laundry. The speakeasy at 1742 Central Ave. is designed as a typical retro laundromat with a checkerboard floor and washing machines stuffed with clothes; however, one of the machines is a doorway leading into the hidden speakeasy. Pro tip: To access the speakeasy, you’ll need to pick up the payphone located below a neon sign reading “Talk Dirty To Me” and listen for a code.
The speakeasy has Havana-themed dishes and drinks such as tostones and mojitos.
“The concept was on my mind for almost three years before it opened. I’m always trying to tell a story with my places so I spent a lot of time reflecting on growing up in Tampa and all of the neighborhood cafe spots we would go to grab a sandwich, coffee or soda, but then I imagined if at night there would be a little secret bar,” he said. “I came up with the faux laundromat to tie the cafe and hidden bar together. I wanted this place to have a real wow factor with the hidden bar experience.”
During the day, Dirty Laundry operates as a typical cafe, serving Cuban coffee and sandwiches, but after 5 p.m., the lights dim and it becomes a gateway to the speakeasy.
Another newly-established concept that has taken off in popularity is No Vacancy. The outdoor shipping container-turned-bar restaurant at 937 Central Ave. is outfitted with turf grass, umbrellas and flamingo decor to replicate the vibe of older Floridian motels and beach bars.
“My favorite place to escape from work is the beach, and I found myself there a lot whenever I needed a break. It was a few years back, and I was thinking about how we didn’t have anything like the vibe of a beach bar downtown, and I wanted to create something that felt like the old Florida motels,” Schrutt said.
The names of the drinks also have a local spin such as “The St. Petersbird” and the “Sunshine City Mule.” Many of the food items are seafood-based with lobster and shrimp staked on nachos and a smoked fish dip appetizer.
“I’m the type of person who likes to see unique things come together. I don’t want to have to do the same thing over and over,” Schutt said.
He is currently developing a menu for Good Fortune.
“Good Fortune was a concept I started working on back in 2009, and some of my others took a few years before I actually opened them from the beginning creative process to finding a location,” Schrutt said.
The new Asian fusion restaurant will open on the ground floor of the Station House at 260 1st Ave. S. this summer.
Good Fortune will feature a 12-person sushi bar, a 14-seat bar and an upscale cocktail lounge. There will also be a private karaoke room, which can be rented by the hour.
Schrutt said St. Pete’s culinary scene is poised to grow even more, and he plans to add more diverse concepts in the city.
“I think we still have a few concepts that aren’t here currently, and as I said I have a few more I’d love to open here in St Pete,” he said. “It’s evolved a lot in the last decade that I’ve been here. It’s exciting to see that in many ways it’s just getting started, but it’s also great to see the hard-working local places still going strong even after the challenges of the pandemic and growth of our city.”