The Tampa Bay restaurant scene was once dominated by national chains. These days, though, the area has a growing taste for local flavors like Cigar City Brewing, Kahwa Coffee and Taco Bus.
Local brands are having a moment. Now, at Tampa International Airport, they have a once-in-a-generation chance to expand.
The airport will revamp all of its concessions by 2017, offering local brands the chance to set up shop in one of the most coveted retail spaces in the bay area. But the extraordinary opportunity comes with daunting financial and logistical challenges that many local owners have never faced.
That's why legendary restaurateur Maryann Ferenc of Mise en Place helped form a support group of her fellow entrepreneurs, as a way to share information and ideas. It's grown into more than that.
"When I talk to someone else about their local business," Ferenc said, "I get jazzed up about my business."
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Mise en Place started out as a small caterer that Ferenc and Marty Blitz started in 1986. Now it's one of the bay area's most respected and celebrated restaurants and brands.
Ferenc, who also helped found the Tampa Independent Business Alliance, has always been a prominent evangelist for the hospitality industry and especially for small businesses.
"I'm passionate about what local businesses bring, both culturally and from an economic standpoint, to a community," she said. "I think it's even more important now as communities look for ways to become a great place to live in, work and play."
There's also a practical reason to support local brands, she said: "Local businesses bring more money into your community."
That's because profits are not siphoned off to the parent companies of national brands. The money stays local and gets reinvested here.
Ferenc is also a big fan of travel. That's why two years ago she helped bring Mise en Place to TIA in the form of the First Flight Wine Bar at the center of the third-floor terminal.
But the airport's 4-decade-old concessions contract will expire in 2015. Every bar, counter, store and restaurant — including hers — will be wiped away and replaced by 2017.
There will be new spaces, new places and new opportunities.
"This is a rare opportunity," said David Osterweil, founder of Fitlife Foods, "to reshape the gateway to the community."
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For someone who has spent her life advocating for small businesses, for the Tampa Bay area, Ferenc knew this was an opportunity local entrepreneurs had to look at.
"When this opened up, I thought, wow, what an opportunity for real serious change in the local economy and the local culture here," she said.
About seven months ago, TIA started having informational meetings about the new bid process for concessions contracts. This is where things get complicated.
Airports are highly regulated. Security is tight. Workers face a 10-year background check.
The up-front expenses are considerable: There's a six-month security deposit and the airport determines how much a business must spend on construction — and that space must be redone after five years.
Ferenc wants to keep her business at the airport in some form. She attended the early meetings. But then she looked around the room and realized that some of the most prominent local businesses in the bay area weren't even there to learn about the opportunity.
So Ferenc and others started gathering together their fellow entrepreneurs.
They number just over a dozen. In the past four months they've met four times — often at Mise en Place — had a few conference calls and exchanged plenty of emails.
Some of the names read like a who's who of the local foodie scene:
There's Ferenc, who also runs the Sono Café at the Tampa Museum of Art.
Osterweil is the former Outback executive who formed Fitlife Foods in 2011. He now has five local stores selling healthy meals and snacks.
Raphael Perrier opened Kahwa Coffee Roasting in St. Petersburg in 2005. Now he has six coffeehouses on both sides of the bay.
Abigail St. Clair opened TeBella, a purveyor of custom-blended teas and tea accessories, on Davis Islands four years ago. Two years ago, she opened a tea counter at another trendy brand: Oxford Exchange, the Tampa restaurant/coffeehouse/gift shop.
Susan Stackhouse is a retailer who has been running airport stores like TIA's Ron Jon Surf Shop for more than three decades. Her airport experience has helped guide the group.
Rene Valenzuela of Taco Bus turned his food truck concept into five sit-down restaurants.
"We local small businesses aren't necessarily easy to get a hold of," Ferenc said. "You've got to tap us on the shoulder and say 'Hey look.' "
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St. Clair had heard of these entrepreneurs, enjoyed their products, admired their work. But she hadn't met everyone until she was invited to join the group.
"I was really just excited to be in the room with so many fabulous entrepreneurs," she said. "It's actually been a lot of fun, getting to know some of the owners of my favorite brands. I've always eaten at Taco Bus. Yogurtology is one of my favorite places. And I've always admired Maryann."
Then they got down to business.
They examined the airport's complicated bidding process in greater detail. The airport has set aside 82 retail spaces that will be divided up into 13 packages. Concessionaires will be able to bid on multiple packages. But no one will be able to bid on just one space.
The airport wants the big concessionaire companies to team up with both national chains and local businesses to bid on the packages. That's to ensure variety, and so that the bigger players can help the smaller players survive.
The locals face unfamiliar challenges. Many have never had to respond to an RFP, or request for proposal, for government contracts. They also have never dealt with big concessionaire companies.
St. Clair said she learned "the details on how the RFP works and how the packages have been broken up, the ins and outs of the different prime companies and how the primes work, the different opportunities that different primes represent."
Those prime concessionaires are actively courting smaller businesses right now as airport bids are being assembled. Those bigger players have pitched both the group as a whole, and the individual businesses.
Being part of the group, these local entrepreneurs said, is helping the individual businesses better evaluate the offers they're getting, the risks and the rewards.
"There's several entrepreneurs in the group who have existing businesses in the airport," St. Clair said. "So they're able to offer knowledge about their success and their challenges working within the airport system."
The airport bids are due in July. The contracts will be awarded in 2015.
But so far, the entrepreneurs said they haven't made any decisions yet about whether they'll team up with a major concessionaire, or team up with each other to put in a bid, or whether some of them even want to do business at the airport.
"I don't think we know the best way to do this yet," Ferenc said. "But we're really interested in working together and supporting each other."
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It wasn't all business, though. The group's meetings have also led to new relationships.
That's also how St. Clair, the tea sommelier, finally got to meet Perrier, Kahwa's coffee roaster.
"It was ironic we had never met before, that our paths had never crossed before," she said. "We both got a chuckle out of it."
Later, they ended up meeting on their own.
"We swapped stories for an hour," St. Clair said. "I got great advice. I really appreciated it."
When you run your own business, Ferenc said, sometimes that's all you do.
"We don't often get together and just talk because everyone is so busy running their businesses," she said. "The fact that we've actually gathered together in the same room or on the same call, we're learning from each other and getting inspiration from each other."
These meetings also seemed to have captured the zeitgeist of Tampa Bay's burgeoning food scene, as the public appetite for homegrown microbrews and menus intensifies.
"There's so much creativity in this community in terms of establishing an identity," Osterweil said, "and we really have an opportunity to represent that.
"You're definitely going to have national brands in the airport. But you also want to show the flair of the local community."
That's exactly what TIA wants.
In fact, the bidding process will require that local concepts, local products and local ownership be a part of the winning bids selected in 2015.
Federal rules prohibit the airport from favoring locals in awarding contracts. But the airport can, and will, stipulate in the contract that winning bids will create "a sense of place" and capture "the spirit of Tampa Bay."
TIA wants to distinguish itself from other airports. It can do that by selling food concepts available nowhere else.
"Tampa International Airport is part of the Tampa Bay area," said TIA spokeswoman Janet Zink, "and we should be reflecting the Tampa Bay brand."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.