BRANDON — Edgar Vallejo has been in business 11 years on Brandon Boulevard, serving up Latin food in hearty and colorful combinations, and for this he gave thanks at the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce’s Brandon Business Expo and Taste of Brandon.
At the Florida State Fairgrounds on May 15, Vallejo’s restaurant — Cali Viejo — and evolving catering and special events business, at the Barn Theatre at Winthrop, were represented among the more than 25 restaurants, and almost 150 vendors, on hand to display and discuss food, services and product offerings to a steady stream of consumers from the Greater Brandon area and beyond.
“This is the fifth year I’m here,” Vallejo said, just minutes before the expo doors would open to about 1,800 attendees, according to expo organizers. “It’s a good opportunity to be seen by the community and to thank people for their patronage.”
Joseph Cardenas said it was his first time at the expo, having opened Taqueria Dońa Maria, on Lithia-Pinecrest Road, late last year.
“We keep finding every week people saying, ‘We didn’t know you were here, we live a mile away,’” Cardenas said. “We’re here to get exposure” for their offering of “wholesome Mexican food, cooked in the traditional taqueria fashion.”
Carla Hall, owner of Frontline Fitness on Causeway Boulevard, issued a similar sentiment, also as a first-time vendor at the annual expo. Her business focuses on the mixed martial arts and offers classes in group fitness, nutrition, and strength and conditioning.
“This is my first time here and I’m impressed with the camaraderie and lineup,” Hall said. “I’m here to get more business and to get more customers.”
This year marked the 26th year for the Brandon Business Expo and Taste of Brandon, where awards are given for Best Taste, Best Dessert and Best Booth. Cheddar’s Casual Café extended its win of eight Best Taste recognitions, taking home top honors again this year. The Tampa Bay Times, last year’s booth winner, was again so designated. And this year’s top dessert went to Mimi’s Café.
“All of our restaurants did a phenomenal job in bringing out the best of the best and they were very generous with their portions,” said Laura Simpson, president and chief executive officer of the Brandon chamber. Recognizing Cheddar’s “little dynasty,” she added, “They again brought out the ribs.”
Two businesses new to Brandon earned runner-up status: Ciccio Cali, at Winthrop in Riverview, for Best Taste, and Corner Bakery Café, in the Regency Square Shopping Center, for Best Dessert. Best Booth runner-up went to BayCare Health System, which is spending $237 million to build the upcoming St. Joseph’s Hospital-South. The hospital is on track to open in early 2015, near the intersection of Big Bend and Simmons Loop roads in Riverview.
For the first time, the expo and taste were combined with the chamber’s annual health fair, featuring samplings and discussions of products and services, as well as health screenings for such things as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In years past the health fair had been a free-admission event at the Campo Family YMCA in Valrico.
“We saw it as an efficiency,” Simpson said of the two-event merger. “Where we had back-to-back trade shows, now we are combining the two efforts into one.”
Simpson said the combination forced a rethinking of floor space. “By adding an additional center aisle, everyone felt like they had more access to everybody and that it allowed for people to stick around longer,” she said. “We also opened up some more premium spots.”
On hand, too, were representatives from community and civic groups, including Susan Saunders, from the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office.
“We want to educate people about the ease of early voting and voting by mail,” she said. “We’re also making sure everybody is registered to vote.”
Still, the heart and soul of the expo and taste is the commerce it supports and the cravings it develops. As caterer Joseph Alfonso, of the Corner Bakery Café, put it, “Brandon loves food.”
The 2014 Brandon Business Expo and Taste of Brandon was chaired by Carole Gill, of CRG Coaching Partners, and Ryan Cabrera, of Precision Payments, who called the event, “top-notch all around.”
“People from all around our area get to enjoy samples provided by so many awesome restaurants and caterers at one very low price,” Cabrera said in a news release after the event. “The food is good, and so are the numerous relationship-building conversations that businesspeople like me experience.”
Vallejo couldn’t agree more, finding in his expo experience the means to achieving two loves. “I get to meet a lot of wonderful people,” he said, “and I get to serve food.”