Independent restaurateurs aren’t standing by while chain eateries take a bigger bite of the Hernando County dining landscape.
New and revamped stand-alone dining establishments are crafting original menus, tapping locally sourced food and treating customers like the neighbors they are.
The latest to open, Broad Street Market at 4 N. Broad in Brooksville, opted for a menu built around fresh seafood.
Local owners and former Tampa corporate friends Eric Gallery, 48, and Todd Smith, 52, said that when they sought to dine on seafood, they had to drive out of town.
Then, up popped a lease for a kitchen-equipped storefront across from the county courthouse. The duo chose to become their own bosses and open the notch-above restaurant. It allows Gallery to express his lifelong love of cooking, and Smith contributes his management skills.
Mahi mahi, flounder, red snapper and black grouper dominated the Market’s soft-opening dinner entrée menu, while crab, calamari and ahi tuna appeared in appetizers.
The entrepreneurs’ research took them to a St. Petersburg fishmonger, where the seafood is documented with the time and place where it was caught, along with the fishing vessel and boat captain, to ensure its source and freshness. The catch is delivered to the Brooksville emporium daily. Fresh lobster are flown in by the same fishmonger.
"Most of the recipes are my own," Gallery said. While not culinary-school trained, he is experienced in private catering. His menu carries such chef touches as strawberry coulis and wasabi and avocado aioli.
Smith is in charge of the front of the house, a 45-seat environ with polished dark wood and crystal glassware bespeaking fine dining.
Aware of the come-and-go restaurant history at 4 N. Broad, Gallery said the new owners’ success will be based on "our food, definitely our food, the freshness, the quality ..."
Around the corner, at 10 S. Main St., the Rising Sun Bistro engaged an executive chef, elevated its menu and rebranded itself as The Bistro.
Owner Catherine Reeves, chief cook for four years at the 100-seat emporium, admitted she’s not a chef.
"We’ve been plodding along with the same menu mostly," she said. "We needed to take it to the next level."
She met Culinary Institute of America graduate and 27-year executive chef Aaron Willis, 50, whose seafood restaurant in the Virgin Islands was wiped out last year by hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria. From a conversation between owner and diner, Willis responded when Reeves told him, "I really need somebody to fix this thing."
The menu uptick is noticeable, along with the addition of a full liquor license, bartender, happy hours and dinner service Wednesday through Friday.
"I have so many recipes in my head, it’s almost scary," said Willis. Popular with diners: his flank steak marinated in beer, soy sauce and honey. The former saucier at a San Diego country club also concocts his Caribbean jerk pork chop sauced with habenero chili pepper, orange and lime juices, onion, allspice "and a lot of other stuff."
Drawing on his seafood background, Willis said, "We’re bringing in one fresh fish every week." The Bistro’s menu offers mahi mahi, swordfish, salmon and local black grouper. The menu varies weekly.
Reeves has bought into the locally-sourced trend.
"I love working with the farmers," she said, noting suppliers Beasley Farms of Brooksville and Price Farm of Dade City.
At the southwestern edge of Hernando County, novice entrepreneur Shelly Ponchaud purchased Kevin Howe’s Chef’s Café at 120 Commercial Way in Spring Hill.
"This was my dream," said Ponchard, 60, serving the cozy 45-seat house. When the Wisconsinites moved to Florida two years ago, she determined, "I’m not ready to quit yet."
"I’ve always had a waitress job, even when I had a real job," she said. With a college degree in marketing, Ponchaud was employed in business administration, enjoying side jobs as kitchen prep, short-order cook and caterer.
Ponchaud downsized the café’s three-meal offering, preferring breakfast and lunch service, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. She’s in the kitchen around 5 a.m., baking biscuits and concocting homemade soups.
"The home cooking is what people like best," she said. "We don’t buy it from a can. I understand the chemistries of food."
Professional chef Howe has taken his skills to Timber Pines, overseeing food service at the country club for the 3,500-home community.
Tammy Heon, who keeps abreast of eating-out opportunities for county tourism development, said it’s local residents who fuel neighborhood restaurants.
Café-size restaurants with specialty and pared-down menus also require less capital to establish and operate successfully, according to business consultant Greg Kullman with the Pasco Hernando Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]