DADE CITY — It's 8:10 p.m. The last entrees of the evening have left the kitchen at Pearl in the Grove restaurant, and chef-owner Curtis Beebe is mixing flour, water, yeast and salt in bowls in the sink. The dough will rest in the kitchen overnight and be baked in the morning for service that evening.
After a little more cleaning up, Beebe will go home. He has been here since 6:15 a.m.
"That's a long day," he says, not as a way of complaining but as a comparative analysis. Other days aren't so long, is the implication.
But tomorrow has more catering jobs and more reservations in the book.
Welcome to the world of independent restaurant ownership.
A long, circuitous route leads to the Pearl in the Grove.
That is literal for diners who have driven the back roads through acres of eastern Pasco citrus groves to find the Southern-inflected startup. And it is figurative for Beebe, 48, who opened the restaurant in October and is learning the business on the fly since his nearly 30-year career in information technology dried up.
"I found myself unencumbered by the constraints of traditional employment," Beebe likes to say with barely a note of sarcasm.
This isn't a story, though, where hardship leads to the realization of a long-held dream. Beebe and his wife, Rebecca, have spent years driving around the South, and traveling the world, always on the lookout for a great meal, mostly at off-the-beaten-path mom-and-pop places. But that didn't necessarily instill a desire to have one of their own.
About two years ago, less work led to more free time. That led to more cooking for the family, and to more elaborate dinner parties. Then church dinners.
Hey-we-can-have-our-own-restaurant talk started, but Beebe was cautious. He tested his mettle at a series of "underground" dinners at the Dade City Women's Club. Donations for the meals helped gauge what people would pay. The meals drew between 40 and 100 people each time, and the average donation was $30.
That was all the data Beebe needed to take the plunge.
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The building at St. Joe and Scharber roads, just outside Dade City, has been there for decades. It started life as a house but has been home to businesses for years. Most recently, it was a convenience store/sandwich shop.
It fit Beebe's need for a place with a working kitchen. Much of the startup money was coming from underground diners who were buying in with the promise of getting fed as a return on the investment.
"There are a lot of people around here that want to see us succeed just because they want to have someplace like this to eat," he said.
Sweat was invested to clean the place out and decorate the space. The look is part refined and charming — white tablecloths, candles, chalkboard menus and wine-cork-filled centerpieces — and rough and rustic — concrete floors, cinder block walls.
"If I have a little extra money for improving the decor or getting higher-quality ingredients, I'm going to get the higher-quality ingredients," Beebe says.
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From the start, the plan for the food was to cook from scratch the best ingredients available locally. Being new to the game, Beebe is still learning where he can get what, what he can get when, and why he can't get some things at all.
"The relationship I'm looking for is the person that will come to me and say, 'I can grow this really cool thing. Do you want it?' Because the answer will be yes."
In the meantime, the cabbage he gets one afternoon will be braised and tossed with butter and balsamic. Strawberries picked in the morning are dessert by 7 p.m. A farmer brings in a box of broccoli and beets, which will be side dishes the next night.
Other inspirations come from personal history.
"My wife grew up on salmon croquettes, and I wanted to make something similar, based on what we had available. We can get catfish. It's healthy, and it's sustainable."
So that catfish is mixed with some onion, egg and just enough cornmeal to hold it all together and become catfish beignets. It's a riff on croquettes, and on fried catfish.
For its side dish, inspiration comes from a Sunday afternoon watching celebrity chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich on PBS.
"She was making polenta cakes, and I started thinking, 'What would she be making if she had lived in the South?' She'd be making grits. From there, we smoked some tomato and onion and put it all together."
Put them together, and it's a dish so popular that Beebe has had trouble rotating off the menu.
Which may be just as well, because the realities of running a restaurant have created unexpected issues.
"One of the challenges is finding time to develop new dishes that I can execute during service," he said. "I'm just fumbling my way through this. I'm lucky to be in a place where people will give me a shot."
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As word has gotten out, some nights are quite busy, with a full parking lot and room only for people who made reservations. Other nights are a bigger question mark. Like a recent weeknight, with only one reservation on the books, party of one. The failure rate of new restaurants is high. The Beebes know this.
"I get worried on nights like tonight," said Rebecca Beebe, who shows up after a day of teaching sixth-graders to run the front of the house. "But then on another night we'll be full and not have time to think about it. It would be nice to just know which it's going to be."
Curtis says he figures that if 10 people show up on a Wednesday, that will be a decent night.
"The analyst in me wants to put together all the data — the weather, the phases of the moon, payday — and figure out what makes something sell one night and not another. One night, we almost run out of gumbo. The next night, we don't sell a bowl. What changed? The weather is the same. There has to be a reason."
At 5 p.m., the party of one walks in the door. Shortly after, a reservation for four at 6:30 comes in via e-mail. By the time they are considering dessert, a couple walks in, followed by a group of three.
At the end of the night, as he is mixing the next day's bread dough, the Beebes have served 10 customers.
Maybe the analyst in him has figured out more of the equation than he realized.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746.