Mark Warren might be the only restaurant staffer in the Tampa Bay area who checks the TV listings to find out when his kitchen will get slammed with a rush of business.
But ever since Travel Channel star Adam Richman featured Tampa restaurant and concert venue Skipper's Smokehouse in his Man v. Food Nation series last year, Warren says the episode's rebroadcast is a reliable predictor of when crowds will fill the joint looking for a great meal.
"If (the episode) showed at midnight, the next day the kitchen would be slammed," added Warren, who serves as manager of marketing and promotions for Skipper's, noting that the show has boosted their food business by at least 50 percent.
"Having that kind of publicity with such a targeted market … we couldn't afford that," he added. "Literally, he saved our a--."
And it looks like Richman is about to do it all over again.
Skipper's Smokehouse joins Aguila Sandwich Shop in Tampa as featured restaurants this week in his latest series, Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America., the longtime foodie's good-natured quest to find the best culinary goodies between two pieces of bread this nation has to offer.
"It's incumbent upon me to find something new to engage my audience," said Richman, calling from a store in New York where he was buying a present for a member of his production crew.
"I think sandwiches very much speak to the foodie in all of us and food explorer in all of us," he added. "And if you wait for your audience to ask for something new, you've already lost them."
Richman has been stretching the boundaries of his Travel Channel series for a while, changing up the Man v. Food formula (Richman capped visits to distinctive restaurants by undertaking a momentous food challenge) to feature fans and friends from the general public taking on similar competitions in Man v. Food Nation.
Now, he has left the Man v. format altogether, pitting 30 sandwiches from 27 different cities against each other in a March Madness-style bracket competition, showcasing three sandwiches in each episode.
Richman savors Skipper's blackened grouper Reuben alongside Aguila's Media Noche — a version of a classic pressed Cuban sandwich with sweeter bread. Both creations take on the shrimp po' boy from Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar in New Orleans, grouped together in a Gulf Coast-themed episode.
The host judges each dish with his own criteria, summed up in the acronym B.I.T.E. — Bread, Interior, Taste and Eating experience.
The main goal is to explore dishes whose unusual flavor somehow connects to the community where they are made, providing a culinary travelogue unfolding as a rollicking, gastronomic road trip.
And he even has some superstar friends make recommendations. Anthony Bourdain, who recently fled the Travel Channel for a job at CNN, suggested Domilise's in a segment filmed in an unusual place:
A public restroom.
"His first line in the recommendation is, 'Ambience is everything,' " said Richman, laughing. "It's total satire."
For Richman, a well-traveled guy who counts Tampa Bay Rays executive Michael Kalt as a good friend, Tampa offers more than the opportunity to take in a great baseball game and lovely beaches with his buddy.
"I love Tampa," he said, noting that both Skipper's and Aguila had been featured in segments on his previous shows. "Once you go to (Tampa steakhouse) Bern's, it becomes the experience by which all others are judged. It's not an accident I went back to both restaurants for this show. They are great people who serve great food."
At Skipper's, Warren returns the warm feelings, noting Richman comes across in person just as he does on camera — charismatic, fun-loving and knowledgeable about food.
Richman's crew returned to Tampa for filming earlier this year. Warren said the show called them about appearing and no fees were paid for the privilege.
Coming at the beginning of summer, a typically slow time, Richman's show couldn't air at a better moment for Skipper's, which Warren says is seeing its image turn from a reputation as a live concert venue with good food to a great restaurant that also has some compelling performers onstage.
"Our competition isn't necessarily other music venues; it's Netflix and cat videos on YouTube," Warren said. "I think we're seeing a lot of fresh faces who came for the blackened grouper and stay to see (bluesman) Damon Fowler."