TAMPA — “The mayor is here.”
Nervous whispers spread through Kahwa Coffee on Henderson Boulevard as Bob Buckhorn approaches the glass-door entrance with his official entourage.
Owners Raphael and Sarah Perrier scurry to prepare the handful of staff members at the grand opening of the stylish coffee hangout. TV pitchman Anthony Sullivan is here, too, for star-power oomph.
Buckhorn, dressed in a shiny silver suit, poses for photos with the group and says a few nice words about the Tampa coffee company's growth. A few minutes later he plays mayorista, poking his head out of the drive-through window, joking about taking orders. Over the noise of the cameras, two words from Buckhorn continually ring out: “Jobs” and “hip.”
This is the message of Tampa's mayor:
Tampa needs jobs.
It needs young people to stay in Tampa.
Young people need jobs and cool places to go.
Restaurants and bars and food businesses can accomplish all of that.
Buckhorn is using the city's flourishing food culture as a tool to keep the best and brightest from jumping to bigger, trendier cities.
It's why, he says, he started Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta in Lykes Gaslight Square two years ago. It's why he pushed for the development of Tampa Water Works into Ulele, a new restaurant by Richard Gonzmart of The Columbia Restaurant. It's why he latched on to the idea of being Tampa's “first foodie mayor” during the 2012 dedication of local restaurants at Tampa International Airport. It's why he touts a list of his 28 favorite dining and shopping places on Foursquare.
And it's why he taped this month's “Mayor's Hour” TV segment at The Refinery, the award-winning Seminole Heights restaurant. Buckhorn wanted to highlight the recent Beard Awards nominations of The Refinery's chef Greg Baker, Epicurean Hotel chef Chad Johnson, Cigar City Brewing's founder Joey Redner Jr. and Bern's Steak House.
“In order to keep them here, you need to have a city, especially in the urban core, that's hip, that's cool, that's diverse, that celebrates diversity,” Buckhorn says. “A critical component of that is the social lubricant, if you will. Bars and restaurants. If you do that well, you become, at least in their eyes, a much hipper, cooler, more attractive city to be in. So at the macro level, it's all about keeping and bringing talent here.”
During an hourlong interview recently, Buckhorn talked about how he uses food to advance his political agenda, about the problems restaurants face with permitting, about how to keep Tampa's food momentum going, and about the local restaurants he loves.
Q: Chef Chad Johnson said there wouldn't be a true food culture in Tampa until people who start their culinary careers here stop leaving to go somewhere else. What can your office do to nurture or accelerate that concept?
Answer: We've already done some of what needs to be done. First, restaurateurs are not builders or developers. For them the permitting process can be a very complex, confusing, delay-filled environment, which frustrates them. The folks in Seminole Heights can probably attest to it better than anybody. So when we got here, we blew up the permitting process, made it user-friendly. Made sure all the departments were housed in the same building so these folks didn't have to walk all over the city with their plans to the various departments. We made sure everyone was saying the same thing. When you submitted a set of plans, the water department wasn't going to do something that would contradict what the building department was going to approve, which is exactly what was happening. And it was taking forever.
The other part of it is, just lending the weight of my office through social media, through all the things we do that I think really elevates this growing culture. Are we there yet? No, but we're getting there. I hear from people who left who now want to come back because Tampa has become a cool place.
Q: Or, at least, becoming cooler.
Answer: Becoming cooler. The buzz in the restaurant and the craft beer circles is that there are some talented people here, there is a nucleus here, there is a critical mass here. I want them to come be a part of it because you have some cool stuff going on. We talk about it. I use my pulpit. And I've got the biggest pulpit in the Bay area.
You know how (strip club owner) Joe Redner and I battled for years. I'm (his son) Joey Redner's biggest fan, and I talk about Cigar City all the time because I can separate long ago battles with his dad from what he's doing for Tampa and how important that is. His dad and I have long since buried the hatchet. I think it is just an amazing success story that keeps building upon itself.
Q: I know you say you streamlined the permitting process, but restaurants and bars still complain about the red tape they have to endure, especially construction permitting. Is there a kind of permitting you can do that would streamline the process for food businesses to accelerate the growth and the hipness you have?
Answer: Here's the problem with some of that. The best locations for a lot of these restaurants, particularly these up-and-coming restaurants, are in locations that historically have not been restaurants.
Q: Like Rooster & the Till? That was a medical center before it was empty for a long time.
Answer: Yeah. There are some land-use constraints. There are zoning codes that they bump up against that we can't necessarily resolve. They get frustrated because they want to do great things, but they might be on a road where DOT has jurisdiction. Or they don't have enough parking.
Q: So, essentially, Seminole Heights.
Answer: Yep. You have neighbors who may not want it. It's a delicate balancing act. Our position has been that we will do whatever we can to help you be successful. Our automatic answer is not “No.” It is “You may not be able to do this, but let's figure out how you can do that.” But if you're not a development professional, which these guys are not, it's like pulling your hair out sometimes.
Q: If you're someone like (Outback Steak House co-founder) Bob Basham, you have departments for this and specialists for that. A guy like Rooster & the Till chef-owner Ferrell Alvarez, it's just him and co-owner Ty Rodriguez trying to figure it out.
Answer: Guys like Basham can acquire enough land around them to accommodate parking. Ferrell and Ty don't have enough capital to acquire big lots. So what happens is, the parking spills into the neighborhood. SoHo is a great example of that. We need them to have at least the minimum number of parking requirements, which is sometimes tough to do.
Q: What was the gen- esis of the Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta?
Answer: I was in New York. I was looking for a place to smoke a cigar outside. I was mad at (then-Mayor Michael) Bloomberg because I couldn't find a place to smoke. I'm wandering around the city. It was probably 10:30 or 11 at night. All of a sudden, I saw this food truck roll up. I'm sitting there watching, and within a half-hour there are 200 people lined up. I'm like, “What is this?” I said we've got to do this. It may have been one of those Korean taco trucks. I literally had to grab someone and say what's going on over there.
So I came home and said we needed to figure this out. Taco Bus was probably the only true food truck we had at the time. And every code on our books at the time prohibited that from happening. In the beginning, I said, “I don't care how you do it, get it done. Find a way to get it done.” Even if we have to — and we had to at the beginning — post the fire watch out there, because most of the trucks didn't have exhaust hoods. They were clearly in violation of every code in the world, but we found a way around it. As a result of it, they all have hoods now. This was in the infancy of it.
We changed some parking regulations about their ability to park and serve. We just moved mountains to get it done. It was easier because in a strong-mayor form of government, I can do that. But it turned out to be one of the best things we've done and spawned a whole industry of food trucks.
Q: Former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster fought food trucks. He's not mayor anymore. It set him up for an adversarial situation.
Answer: And it was so unnecessary. He could have done the same thing I did if he wanted to.
Q: What is the next step that needs to happen for Tampa to become a place known for the food? It still has that reputation as the home of the chains.
Answer: I think we need more residential living downtown, because retail always follows residential. If you create the critical mass of residential, particularly with the population that doesn't want to cook and will eat out every night, they'll walk to all the restaurants.
If you create that critical mass, it becomes attractive for a guy like Joey Redner to put a brew pub in downtown Tampa. And I've been on him for two years. I told him, “I want you downtown. I want you in the Kress building. Wherever the next hip development is, I want you on the ground floor.”
Q: There seems to be a lot of energy moving to St. Petersburg, especially in the craft beer segment. Is there anything you can do to help Tampa keep pace or contain it?
Answer: You would think that I'd see that as a threat. I look at St. Pete as complementary. I'm not competing with St. Pete. We will always be the 900-pound gorilla. I think as our downtown matures, there will be a much bigger market and marketplace for restaurants and brew pubs here as opposed to the other side. They have a great niche: arts, open space, good restaurants on Beach Drive. Tampa is a far more muscular business hub and will continue to be. If you, hypothetically, add a baseball stadium to the mix; if you add (Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey) Vinik's ability to create an entire entertainment district there. We've got two new hotels about to open. (The Aloft and Le Meridien boutique hotels.) If he does another one down there, all of a sudden all of the pieces are starting to fit. ... We really are this far away from busting it big.
Q: Are you the one who manages your Foursquare account?
Answer: (laughs) I've been a little lax on that lately.
Q: I don't know many mayors who have a “Recommended Restaurant” list in addition to a building list.
Answer: I don't do it as much as I should. It's just one component of it. (Speaking to an aide) I need to update that restaurant list.
Q: Do you cook?
Answer: No. I cook on the grill. I have developed a great deal of affection for smoking. My wife bought me a smoker. We smoke fish. We smoke brisket. I smoked ribs last night. It's a $120 smoker from Home Depot. I smoked jalapeno poppers last night. Smoking the poppers? Big difference. It knocks the heat down and adds a great flavor. We stuff them with cream cheese, shrimp. So, yeah, I'm your typical guy.
Q: Five places where you love to eat?
Answer: Ella's (Americana Folk Art Café). Osteria Natalina on South MacDill (Avenue). We eat there a lot. Bern's is obviously great. I like Café Dufrain. Pane Rustica is good. I like Donatello's a lot. The Refinery. I eat a lot of Cuban food.
Q: Do you have a favorite Cuban sandwich?
Answer: (smiles) No.
Q: You're smart about that.
Q: Do you have a favorite food truck?
Answer: Oh, man, you'd really get me in trouble. They all look at themselves as my children. And I love every one of them.
Q: For something like Tampa Heights, what's the importance of the Ulele restaurant project at the former Tampa Water Works?
Answer: Huge. Huge.
Q: It seems as though things moved forward on that project in a way that indicated this was part of a grander plan. Bring up the rest of the Riverwalk, fix the park and transform the Water Works.
Answer: These decisions were not accidental. That is exactly what we set out to do when we came here. Focus on the riverfront to find places where we could see using our money or our buildings and then move on to the next one. That Water Works building was abandoned. It was a dump. We put an RFP (request for proposals) out on the street and (Columbia Restaurant CEO) Gonzmart and Ella's responded. Gonzmart was clearly better positioned because he had more capital available to him. He's in love with this project. If you sit and talk to him about it, he's like a kid.
The city had a role to play, too. Not only did we make the building available for someone to do it, but then by investing $6 million or $7 million in Water Works Park, because then you create an anchor. That will spur development at the Tampa Armature property, and we'll get (the owner, SoHo Capital principal) Adam Harden moving on the rest of the site. We'll connect from the Straz (Center for the Performing Arts) all the way up to Ulele.
Q: Not everyone gets a new park next to their restaurant like Gonzmart will.
Answer: No, they don't. But this is a case where the city has been right there with him, shoulder to shoulder with him, knocking down the barriers, getting things done and making investments to help him be successful. In the long run, I can justify doing that because I know what will happen at the end of this. You'll spur a lot more private capital coming to the table, which will generate property taxes. And I get to replenish the pot and seed something else. I'm excited about it. I walked it Saturday. I was out driving by myself and went out and walked the site. It's going to be a really cool project.
Q: First Seminole Heights, then Tampa Heights. After those two, what is the next possible place?
Answer: Redevelopment of Julian B. Lane (Riverfront Park). Then the West River area. They're big, bold, expensive projects, but I think they're very doable. At the end of that development cycle, the river will be the center of downtown. Bookended by the West River project and Julian B. Lane, complemented by Curtis Hixon (Waterfront) Park and what happens in Tampa Heights. The Trump site will go at some point. I think the Kress Building will go at some point. You have UT (the University of Tampa) as an economic engine. As it expands, you start adding young kids to the mix. You think about Boston; what drives it is the energy of 17 universities and kids walking all over the place.
Q: Is there a kind of restaurant that you wish was here that isn't here now?
Answer: Yeah. I think one of the coolest places I've ever been is Eataly in New York City. (Eataly is a high-end Italian food market-mall with restaurants, food and beverage stations, bakery and retail shops in a single location.) I can see that in the Kress building. When I was in New York, I ate there three times. Three times in the span of three days. It had the market. It had everything. Something like that would be really amazing.
The other one I just inadvertently left off the list earlier was Datz. I think they could do really well downtown. What I love about them, and I know it's been an expensive venture for them, but they're so creative and they use social media so well. Their menu changes. It's been fun to watch it morph and evolve.
What we don't have that I'm committed to thinking of how we can get more of is waterfront restaurants. Ulele is the beginning. But think about it: Where do you go if you want to sit out on the water and eat in Tampa?
Q: The best waterfront view in Tampa is at Sono Café in the Tampa Museum of Art.
Answer: Or Jackson's (Bistro on Harbour Island). There's got to be ways we can figure this out. For us to have the waterfront we do and the bridges lit up and the minarets of the University of Tampa — it's a beautiful skyline. To not be able to sit out on the water. … Even in St. Pete you're not on the water, with the exception of the one restaurant at the marina. You're on Beach Drive, and you can see the water. Here, you could be on the water. I was in Baltimore a couple weeks ago. Phillips (Seafood Restaurants) just built an outdoor floating restaurant that is attached to a dock. There's no reason we couldn't do that in the channel or other places.
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