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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Craft brew bar drives success of downtown St. Pete plaza

ST. PETERSBURG - Two years ago, the tucked-away collection of retail and office space in Plaza Tower and Courtyard Shops was a no-man's land.
“We had tumbleweeds blowing through here for a while. It was like a ghost town,” said Lisa Hepp, who has worked at Vista Insurance Alliance since 2005.
Now Hepp looks out of her second-floor office window about 3 p.m. and feels a tinge of jealousy when she sees the first few people trickling in to enjoy a craft beer or a glass of wine.
That group grows almost every evening the weather is nice to a crowd of young couples, families with kids — even dogs — that gathers for the nightly live music hosted by The Ale & the Witch craft beer pub.
At first, they came to the plaza just for the Witch's brew, a carefully selected and constantly rotating variety of the finest American craft beers made locally and nationally.
They've stayed – and invited their friends – to enjoy wine, tapas, sushi, Thai food and, now, gourmet barbecue at the new Witches BBQ Den that opened this month.
All those offerings emerged organically in this enclosed office plaza on Second Avenue Northeast, even as the BayWalk shopping complex across the street went under.
“When we took this and we opened up, everybody was like 'You're crazy,' ” said The Ale & the Witch owner Brett Andress. “This is where places go to die. Nothing works in there. Nobody can find you. Nobody can see you. You have no signs. How are you going to get customers?
“I just said the right customers will find us because the product that we serve will drive them here, and it will become a destination.”
That's exactly what happened. Plaza Tower and Courtyard Shops has become a downtown destination.
At one point, BayWalk was that destination, with its prominent marquee advertising an expansive courtyard bordered by popular chain restaurants and retailers
The Muvico theater is the only piece of that multimillion-dollar project that remains now. Developer Bill Edwards is demolishing the old space with plans to reopen it as the Shops at St. Pete next year.
Andress believes different spots in the city go through evolutions of success. His pub was a Hallmark card store when Plaza Tower was built in the 1970s
The space went through several restaurants over the years. When Andress was considering leaving his job opening Lee Roy Selmon's restaurants to starting his own craft beer pub in 2010, Beach Drive and Central Avenue were hot; this off-the-beaten-path spot was not.
The risk of opening in a place with no built-in foot traffic meant a fairly cheap lease when he opened in 2011.
“I thought that a craft beer bar with music could be a destination, where people who like that would come to this space,” he said. “You didn't need to actually be in a high-traffic area.”
Months after Andress opened the Witch, Wine Madonna opened next door, offering wine tastings and tapas. Later, the Sab Café Thai and Vietnamese restaurant re-opened with a new concept at the entrance to the plaza on Second Avenue. Last year, the trendy sushi joint Rollbotto opened.
Andress made an offer to the landlord last month for the lease to a second-story space that had been the El Metate Mexican restaurant.
The Witches BBQ Den opened this month, starting with just a takeout menu of made-from-scratch pulled pork, brisket and other Southern favorites with a variety of sauces inspired by different regions of the United States — craft barbecue to pair with craft beer.
Andress, though, said he isn't looking to drive anyone out of business by expanding into food.
Unlike the sidewalks cafes of Beach Drive, the tables and chairs in the Plaza Tower courtyard don't belong to any particular business: They're a community space. Before there were restaurants, customers would bring their own food, Andress said. If one person likes beer, another wine, one a California roll, another Carolina pulled pork, that's all the better.
“We allow customers to bring beers in from Brett's place, and vice-versa; we have many customers who bring sushi over there,” said Rollbotto co-owner Hoa Ly.
The success of the Plaza is tied to the sense of community the businesses there have created, said Ester Venizou, who promotes local merchants through her membership group, LocalShops1.
“People notice that they're not just another Bennigans or Fridays — it's someone who's in your community,” Venizou said.
LocalShops 1 hosted its third-annual Top Local Chef competition in the courtyard Sunday, featuring dishes from six restaurants, including the Sab Café. The event sold out weeks in advance.
Hepp, who works at the insurance office, says many of the office spaces around her have filled up alongside the retail in the past two years.
The balance of complementary businesses that have opened in the Plaza could just be “dumb luck,” but the dynamic seems to be working, Andress said.
“When you have the basic building blocks there, it's all just a matter of what's placed in there,” he said. “You could have five different businesses and this entire courtyard be different.
“But this puzzle has turned into this picture.”

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