The face of St. Petersburg’s 600 block is changing rapidly. Once known as an epicenter of St. Petersburg’s artistic grunge scene, the 600 block is evolving from rebellious teenager to refined twenty-something as new concepts open their doors. The latest addition, Pacific Counter, celebrates its grand opening Tuesday.
Located at 660 Central Ave., Pacific Counter is the result of a master sushi chef, a sommelier and an operations entrepreneur in a perfect mind meld. Pacific Counter delivers a fast-casual concept with a price point that sits at $12 across the board. The thoughtful menu presents a fresh take on two current crazes – poke bowls and sushi burritos. Patrons can choose one of 10 signature creations to put into bowl or burrito form, or they can choose to build their own.
The partners behind Pacific Counter are longtime Tampa Bay names, including Tanner Loebel, the founder behind FoodNow, which was sold to BiteSquad in 2017. As with the creation of FoodNow, Loebel thought of the concept as a means of fulfilling a need he saw filled in other cities he had visited. He recognized the poke craze, and a space for healthy, quick options that people like him – young professionals and active people – really wanted.
Loebel sought out Eric Bialik, who he’d met at the University of Central Florida, to join him. Bialik, a trained sommelier and highly experienced restaurant manager, had been steering the ship at Tampa staples like Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club and Grill One Sixteen for years.
Bialik and Loebel approached Chitt Noythanongsay (better known as Chef Tock) to round out the team. Chef Tock trained for 10 years to become a master sushi chef, where he learned classical sushi preparation. While helping establish multiple sushi concepts throughout Tampa Bay, Chef Tock trained under celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, where he learned a French-inspired, modern interpretation of sushi preparation.
The menu and fast-casual concept is steered towards busy professionals, and streamlined for ease. Unlike the Chipotles or Fresh Kitchens of the world, there are no upcharges for ingredients commonly thought to be pricier than others. There are no moments of, “That’s $1.50 extra, is that alright?” in a Pacific Counter line. Every decision on the menu and the operations is thoroughly thought out to be the most expedient and friendly for the customer.
“We want it to be approachable, easy, light,” says Loebel. “We want friendly people working here. We’re all about the good vibes.”
And no worries if you’re not quite sure what the heck this whole “poke” thing is or how to eat it.
“We want you to be comfortable here; if you want to eat your poke bowl with a spoon or a fork instead of chopsticks, no judgment,” he laughs.
The partners each bring something different to the table. Chef Tock is the culinary expert. He’s responsible for the menu, produce and food sourcing. He’s also created the restaurant’s sauces, each made by Chef Tock from memory.
Bialik as the sommelier is responsible for the beverage menu, filled with innovative juices and teas, all without the use of artificial sweeteners. You’ll notice swirling frozen beverage machines as well, in which unique chilled takes on Japanese favorites like a Sake Slush, and a Frostee Kirin, reside. Bialik has also brought in wines, kombucha, beer and sake from places local and international. The one rule for the beverages sourced outside of Tampa Bay is that they come from an area that borders the Pacific Ocean.
Loebel is responsible for the delivery program – free delivery to downtown homes and businesses – as well as smooth operation of the concept. Loebel says they have color-coded systems for everything from cutting boards to kitchen towels.
The team certainly didn’t take any shortcuts when it came to the restaurant’s physical space. They utilized local suppliers of all kinds to pull the concept, the space and the menu together. St. Petersburg-based firm Wannemacher Jensen Architects was responsible for the design and build out, Hype Group did the restaurant’s branding, and O’Berry Succulents provided the greenery throughout.
Loebel, a local art fan, asked Chad Mize (aka Chizzy) to design a mural for the back of the shop, keeping with the artistic nature of the block, which features Mize’s well-known Twiggy mural. The paintings that decorate the interior walls are local, too. David Williams, who Loebel describes as the “O.G.” of St. Pete’s mural art scene, created the pieces to pay homage to the places that motivated Pacific Counter’s concept – Hawaii/Polynesia, Southern California, Tokyo and St. Petersburg.
Even most of the produce is sourced from local markets, including all greens from Brick Street Farms.
While many of the basics will remain the similar throughout the year, “wave items” will change with the season or the taste of Chef Tock. They will include different produce, protein options and sauce options throughout the year.
Dairy-free? Gluten-free? Vegan? They’ve got dozens of options for you too, including tofu or spicy tofu that can be subbed into all bowls/burritos. Even most of the homemade sauces that top the bowls are vegan-friendly, gluten-free and dairy-free.
The best part? At least for the first few days, you’ll see each of the partners in the trenches, working the line. Chef Tock is supervising ingredient preparations, Loebel is out running deliveries to businesses around downtown, and Bialik himself is preparing bowls. That’s when you know it’s a labor of love, done right.