Saturday, March 24, 2018

Brooksville's beloved Florida Cracker Kitchen spreads southern charm to Jacksonville

Florida Cracker Kitchen has become a Brooksville staple since opening on Jefferson Street nearly five years ago. And now that a second location has opened in Jacksonville Beach, the restaurant’s owners hope to see their southern hospitality charm locals there, too.

The new location opened off Beach Boulevard the day after Christmas with a menu and feel nearly identical to the restaurant here. While some aspects of the new space are different — like the fact that it has a full bar, a Bloody Mary truck and is minutes from the ocean — much about the new restaurant will mimic the first in an effort to preserve the small-town, Old Florida vibe so well-received in Brooksville.

The partners

Blair and Ethan Hensley, the brothers who own Florida Cracker Kitchen, had long thought of expanding their brand, but it wasn’t until they were approached by a Jacksonville-based restaurant group called ServStar that they were sold on the idea.

They began talks with the company in 2015, when one of its executives stopped in for a bite and found himself raving not only about the food, but the feel.

"Everybody was welcoming and gracious," Bob Tilka, an executive at ServStar, told the Tampa Bay Times when the partnership was announced last year. "It wasn’t just a standard greeting; it was genuine."

The Hensley brothers were equally impressed with ServStar, which operates seven restaurants in and near Jacksonville. It has the backing of several prominent business owners in the area, including Tilka, who previously worked for the Jacksonville Jaguars professional football team.

Soon, a partnership was underway.

"They’ve proven what they can do," Blair Hensley said, noting the company’s successful track record. He said the management group will run back-of-house operations in Jacksonville.

ServStar representative Jay Albertelli said Florida Cracker Kitchen’s authentic style "fills a niche" that is missing from the restaurant scene in Jacksonville.

"Everything you guys created down there ... the family feel, that Brooksville attitude and Old Florida southern hospitality ... it’s got us psyched," he said. "Florida Cracker Kitchen is a disrupter in the industry, and we knew that from the moment we learned about it."

ServStar has hinted at further expansion, and while Blair Hensley said that could happen in the future.

"Right now, we are making sure this one goes right," he said.

The fare

Unlike the Brooksville location, the Jacksonville restaurant has a full liquor bar, plus a modified, white 1950s milk truck serving as an outdoor Bloody Mary bar for patrons while they wait for a table inside. Luckily for Jacksonville patrons, that’s the only thing changing about the menu.

Albertelli said the food will be "just like Brooksville."

"One of the things our company brings to the table is the ability to take something and be able to replicate it," he said. "The shrimp and grits have to taste as good in Jacksonville as they do in Brooksville, and we will make sure that happens."

Other favorites, like chicken and waffles, fried seafood baskets and giant homemade cinnamon rolls, will be up for grabs, too. The restaurant also specializes in traditional breakfast dishes, like corned beef hash, omelets and pancakes.

Ethan Hensley, who serves as head chef, said the inspiration behind his "southern home cooking" is deep-rooted. Some recipes have traveled down generations of the Hensley family to land on the Florida Cracker Kitchen menu, he said. The family also owns longtime Brooksville fixture Mallie Kyla’s Cafe on Liberty Street.

"As a kid I sat on my grandmother’s counter while she cooked, peeling carrots or just watching," Ethan Hensley said. "The tomato gravy that’s on our shrimp and grits, my grandmother used to make for us when we were younger."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Popular Brooksville restaurant will become latest venture for Hensley family

The space

In Jacksonville, diners walk into an open space with high ceilings. To the left is a long bar, adorned with a giant metal "Jacksonville" sign and three flat-screen televisions playing footage of Florida farmers — some from Brooksville — working on their ranches.

Decor throughout the restaurant gives homage to the state’s agricultural history, which is still rich in Brooksville and reflected in the restaurant’s name. Blair Hensley said the term "Florida Cracker," which he chose as the name of his brand about 16 years ago, is an endearing name for a Florida cowboy.

"They were the essence of life in Florida and still are," he said. "From then to now, it’s a lifestyle."

Holly Garman, formerly a regular at Florida Cracker Kitchen in Brooksville, moved to Jacksonville for a job in 2014. Now, the new restaurant is within walking distance of her workplace.

"It’s a different place, sure, but there are still the Brooksville touches," she said, pointing out tin orange grove signs hanging on the walls. "I feel like I have a piece of home here now."

Patrons can choose between bar, table and patio seating, and shop in the restaurant’s gift shop for homemade sauces, clothing and Yeti merchandise.

The community

The Hensley brothers agree that expanding Florida Cracker Kitchen was possible only because of the steadfast support it has received from Hernando County since its inception.

"Our staff and customers in Brooksville paved the way," Blair Hensley said. "They believed in our dreams and made them come true."

To show their thanks, the Hensley brothers last month rented a charter bus to carry about 65 people, both staff and patrons of the restaurant, to see and share a drink at the new space.

Barbara Fisher, 70, came with a handful of her Beta Sigma Phi sorority sisters. For years, they’ve met at the Brooksville restaurant on Thursdays to drink sangria together.

Betsy Hackney and her husband, Steve, also regulars at the Brooksville location, took off work to make the trip because the restaurant is "such a supporter of our town."

Hernando Chamber of Commerce president Pat Crowley praised the Florida Cracker Kitchen for being "community-minded" and said the restaurant "brings the city up with its successes."

Brooksville City Council member Natalie Kahler agreed.

"I think it’s clear they have created a destination, not just a restaurant," she said. "Through building up the Jefferson Street area, Florida Cracker Kitchen has had a big impact downtown and helped everybody in business there."

Blair Hensley said just as the Florida Cracker Kitchen company has helped the community here — whether by cooking weekly meals for the Hernando High School football and baseball teams, donating to local organizations, heading up the silo projectin 2015 to beautify downtown or simply providing a friendly stop for a hot breakfast — it will help the community in Jacksonville.

"It’s how we were raised, and it’s one of our core beliefs," Blair Hensley said. "If you want the community to support you, you have to support the community."

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.


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