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Monday, Jun 25, 2018
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Tampa becoming a barbecue heaven

— Take a look at Danny Hernandez’s office if you want to know how hectic his life is at this moment, as he grows his Holy Hog barbecue restaurant chain.

A forest of fishing poles stand waiting in one dim corner of the olive green room behind his North Armenia Avenue restaurant. A white dry-erase board with ideas for new entrees and side dishes is perched on a wall next to them. Covering those ideas is a yellow slip of paper with numbers from Hernandez’s doctor, pointing out that his “bad” cholesterol levels are a little too bad. In front of him are two flat-screen televisions, one with business news, the other with a mosaic of security camera feeds.

Next to the door, a magazine rack holds copies of Food & Wine, Garden & Gun, Bon Appétit and American Hunter magazines. On the laptop next to his cluttered desk are family photos, including snapshots of his daughters — toddler Mia and infant Zoe, who was born on Cinco de Mayo.

Also on the laptop are architectural renderings for the next Holy Hog restaurant, a 1,000-square-foot space next to the Tampa Police Department along Lykes Gaslight Square in downtown Tampa. Holy Hog will occupy the former Quiznos Subs location at 302 E. Kennedy Blvd.

Now under construction, it is expected to open in late August. It will be the fourth Holy Hog, in addition to the restaurants on Armenia Avenue and Henderson Boulevard and inside the Forum.

Coming up: A fifth restaurant is being planned for another Tampa location. He’s building a new food truck, the Righteous Hog, inside a shiny, bullet-shaped Airstream trailer. And he is about to produce his own line of crunchy barbecue pork skins for sale at each location.

“It’s a lot of fun all at once right now,” Hernandez , 38, says as a wide grin explodes across his face. “It’s an all-out love affair.”

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The first Holy Hog opened on April 5, 2010, on Armenia Avenue in West Tampa. Two days earlier, Hernandez was operating Pipo’s Original Cuban Cafe. Ramon Sr. and Sinarah Hernandez, his father and mother, opened the first Pipo’s in 1979 on Hillsborough Avenue, and sons Danny and Ramon Jr. helped the brand grow to seven locations.

After he graduated from the University of South Florida in 1993 with a business degree, Danny Hernandez opened Pipo’s cafeteria-style restaurants in the Countryside Mall in Clearwater, Citrus Park Mall in Tampa and Florida Mall in Orlando and on MacDill Avenue in Palma Ceia.

“We were going crazy,” he says.

When he decided to go into the barbecue business in 2010, Hernandez closed all but the Palma Ceia location. Ramon Jr. still owns and operates a Pipo’s on Bay Pines Boulevard in St. Petersburg.

“I learned so much in those 10 years,” Hernandez says. “I learned the most important resource is staff. You have to have the right people in the right places and promote managers from within.”

Staying focused on the food and the smoking is crucial, he says. It means getting the brisket, chicken, St. Louis-style ribs and pork tender, but it also means offering hard-core barbecue fans items like burnt ends, Angus beef ribs and fresh collard greens.

“We only make collard greens in season,” he says. “If we run out, we run out. I won’t make them from a can.”

Switching to barbecue from Cuban cuisine might not be an obvious transition in West Tampa’s heavily Hispanic neighborhood, but Hernandez says it was a natural move. The market for Cuban food is crowded with competitors in that part of Tampa, but barbecue restaurants are few. And Hernandez has been passionate about barbecue for decades as a backyard practitioner.

“Latin people have been cooking pork all our lives,” he says. “We understand barbecue so well.”

Barbecue and grilling cookbook author Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe of St. Petersburg met Hernandez almost 10 years ago, when he was just starting his professional barbecue education. Back then, Hernandez talked about barbecue to everyone he could find, including Lampe. He bought the right smokers and tweaked his spices and sauces until he had them right, Lampe says.

Hernandez even delved into the barbecue contest world and had some success. In 2011, his team won the first-place beef brisket trophy in the Plant City Pig Jam.

When he opened Holy Hog, Hernandez avoided a mistake many in barbecue make in thinking good food will guarantee success, Lampe says. Few barbecue champs have the chops to be restaurateurs, while Hernandez’s experience with Pipo’s prepared him for the BBQ biz.

“He did that all while learning to make his BBQ better in an already good restaurant,” Lampe says. “I wish him well, but I’m not surprised by his success.”

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The move to create a Holy Hog location downtown gained steam after Hernandez agreed to open a barbecue window on the Bud Light Party Deck at the Forum during last season’s Tampa Bay Lightning hockey season. The experiment proved to be such a success, Hernandez is discussing a second location inside the Forum with building managers.

As part of his effort to recruit more restaurants to come downtown, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn lobbied Hernandez for two years to start a Holy Hog there, city public affairs director Ali Glisson says. Hernandez approached the mayor’s office about the Quiznos space when the sandwich chain vacated the corner spot on Franklin Street.

“When the space became available, it was the perfect fit,” Glisson says.

Last month, Holy Hog’s signature jalapeño macaroni and cheese won the first-place Critics’ Choice award during the mayor’s first Mac & Cheese Throwdown at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. An enormous silver spatula trophy hangs in the Armenia Avenue dining room.

Holy Hog’s food tent has been a staple at the mayor’s monthly Food Truck Fiesta in Gaslight Square for the past year on Franklin Street, right in front of where the new restaurant will be.

“Danny Hernandez is a Tampa success story, and my mouth is already watering at the mere thought of that award-winning mac and cheese,” Buckhorn says.

“I can tell you that with Holy Hog being right across the street from my office, that it will distract all of the staff,” he says. “My waistline is already regretting this decision.”

Hernandez plans to make the downtown location a quick lunch option for office workers, but he also sees an opportunity to provide catering to nearby businesses. He also will open on Saturdays to tap into weekend events downtown.

It’s a lucrative market with growing competition. Two blocks away, TooJay’s Gourmet Deli plans to offer catering when it opens this month in the SunTrust Financial Centre. Nature’s Table is building a 1,200-square-foot restaurant in Park Tower along Ashley Drive.

Beyond downtown, Holy Hog’s competition will increase when chef John Rivers expands his Orlando-based 4 Rivers Smokehouse barbecue empire to Tampa next year. The new 4 Rivers is expected to open south of Ehrlich Road on North Dale Mabry early in 2015. Rivers has four Orlando restaurants, as well as one in Gainesville and one in Jacksonville, and he has been considering locations in South Florida, Tallahassee and Georgia.

Hernandez says the competition will be good for Tampa, and that “there is more than enough sunshine for all of us.” That includes longtime Tampa independent staples like Jimbo’s Pit Bar-B-Q, Big John’s Alabama BBQ and Kojaks House of Ribs.

For barbecue fans, he says, Holy Hog always will be a hometown barbecue spot.

“I don’t want there to be a question that when you think Tampa and barbecue, you think Holy Hog,” he says.

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