Ronnica Whaley, founder of a local food truck franchise with a “cult-like” following, will soon open a brick-and-mortar location in St. Petersburg’s Edge District that will seat about 35 people.
Many more can enjoy Shiso Crispy’s hand-rolled dumplings and bang-bang chicken next to a tropical stretch of Booker Creek – in one of the few areas where it doesn’t resemble a drainage ditch.
Whaley is leasing a former warehouse adjacent to the site of a long-planned, unique Green Bench Brewing beer garden. While that project is still about a year from completion, she plans to open Shiso Crispy’s latest location at Central Avenue and 15th Street North by December.
“I killed it with that spot,” Whaley said. “I got really lucky.”
The Vitale Brothers recently painted the food truck typically parked at 6901 U.S. Hwy. 19 in Pinellas Park. Whaley will now use it as the Edge District location’s kitchen.
She expects to seat around 35 people inside the retrofitted warehouse. Whaley said she entered a long-term lease and credited the owners for offering generous terms.
Whaley will make her official return to St. Petersburg in about six weeks. Utilizing her Pinellas Park food truck allowed her to skip the cumbersome permitting process, and Whaley will open when she receives new furniture.
Nathan Stonecipher, co-owner of Green Bench, previously told the Catalyst that he and his colleagues began exploring the idea of a Booker Creek beer garden nearly six years ago. However, they preferred to “keep it under wraps” until moving further along a lengthy process.
In June, city officials ceded control of a brick alley at 1421 Central Ave. to the ownership group. That allows Green Bench to convert an old warehouse into a hospitality and retail concept.
Shiso Crispy’s building abuts that facility. A private courtyard overlooking Booker Creek will become a beer garden. That section of the creek creates miniature rapids after heavy rains.
“It’s going to be so f*cking cool,” Whaley said. “I’m so excited.”
Whaley looks forward to leaving the Pinellas Park location that she referred to as a last-minute decision. She also noted a lack of indoor dining has impacted growth.
A new St. Pete location is akin to returning home for Shiso Crispy. The business launched near downtown, Whaley noted, and generated a “major following” in the area.
She and the concept have twice appeared on the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, hosted by Guy Fieri. While her business – and brand – have steadily grown over the past few years, Whaley said it “will skyrocket from the Pinellas Park location to this. That’s for damn sure.”
In August, Whaley opened a permanent food truck location at 111 E. Cass St. in downtown Tampa. It is open from 11 a.m. to midnight during the week and until 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and the Edge District location will mirror those hours.
She said the “lines are crazy” in Tampa as many people are experiencing Shiso Crispy for the first time. Whaley said hungry customers often remain on the patio long after 3:30 a.m.
In December 2022, Whaley announced plans for Shiso Crispy’s first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Tyrone Gardens area of St. Petersburg. She has renovated a 2,600-square-foot space near the corner of 9th Ave. and 58th St. N.
However, the city’s permitting process has caused significant delays. Whaley bemoaned the extraneous wait and said she pays $8,000 in monthly rent to “sit there and do nothing.”
She hopes to open the Tyrone location by the end of the year but said, “People are losing their business over this.”
While the Pinellas Park location will close, Shiso Crispy remains at the House of Beer in Dunedin. Whaley has also sold two franchises.
One franchisee will replace her mobile food truck, now parked in Tampa. Another will soon begin operation in Miami.
“I’m going to have hundreds of these,” Whaley said.
She attributed Shiso Crispy’s popularity to its handmade food not typically found elsewhere. She also credited her family, customers and team for their encouragement through “the worst of the worst things that could ever happen to a small business owner.”
“There is just so much overwhelming love and support that there is absolutely no way that I could give up and not want to share this with way more people than already know about it (the brand), Whaley added. “Because it legitimately makes people happy.”