As the Tampa Bay Rays broke national headlines this week stating they are “here to stay” in St. Pete with the rise of a new stadium, it also represents a continued partnership with local vendors.
Fo’ Cheezy Twisted Meltz Chef Robert Hesse, a St. Pete native who has competed in cooking shows such as Hells Kitchen and Beat Bobby Flay, has inked a deal for the next three years to operate in the current Tropicana Field stadium. He may also have a footprint in the future reinvented ballpark.
“When they [Rays] approached me, they saw the efforts we do to support the community and our large following. They asked if I’d like to team up to have more visibility,” Hesse said.
Hesse currently has multiple stands within Tropicana Field. He signed the extended agreement with the Rays mid-season to serve the “official grilled cheese of the Rays.”
Fo’ Cheezy is known for its urban hip-hop theming with colorful graffiti art and its spin on the classic grilled cheese, incorporating custom toppings like buffalo chicken and roasted pork.
The growing brand Hesse founded with co-owner Chris Arnold originated from their local food truck business. The company has brick-and-mortar locations in St. Pete Beach and downtown St. Petersburg.
Hesse has started conceptualizing a sit-down Fo’ Cheezy restaurant for the new stadium site, similar to how Parc and Rec operates a full-service sports bar and restaurant inside Tropicana Field.
“There are generations of Rays fans,” Hesse said. “If an MLB [Major League Baseball Team] can work with a guy like me, that means someone out there needs to embrace their idea and make it happen.”
During the City Hall on Tour event Sept. 19 at the Lake Vista Center, Rays President Brian Auld said the team wants to remain committed to homegrown established businesses.
“The local flavors we have in the stadium – whether it is Fo’ Cheezy, Kahwa Coffee or Pacific Counter and others – our fans tell us how much they love it, and those businesses are reaching out to us [about more opportunities]. We need to partner with every local business to get the most out of our partnerships. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that’s great for our fans,” Auld said to the St. Pete Catalyst.
Hesse said Fo’ Cheezy is also planning to build a walk-up trailer or bring another food truck to Al Lang Stadium to serve Tampa Bay Rowdies game attendees.
Additionally, Hesse has signed a letter of intent for a third brick-and-mortar space outside of St. Pete that will debut early next year.
While Fo’ Cheezy further solidifies its physical footprint, Hesse said the game plan is to use the Fo’ Cheezy brand as a soap box to draw broader attention to the community efforts he and Arnold are spearheading.
“We had a group of kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to a game, come out to Tropicana Field last week. The Rays gave them the VIP treatment,” Hesse said.
Hesse and Arnold are involved in multiple programs for at-risk youth. The duo dedicates 2% of net proceeds to their charitable organization – No Kid 86’d. The term “86” refers to an unavailable item in the restaurant industry.
The proceeds go towards mentorship programs for youth and financial assistance to Tampa Bay area residents. Hesse said he can relate on some level, as he grew up in Childs Park and faced financial hardships.