Tom Geer sat depressed watching TV, having just moved from the microbrew-rich mountains of Montana to the craft beer wasteland many consider Florida.
Then an oasis appeared. Food Network's ubiquitous Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, an addictive series about unique hole-in-the-wall restaurants, was featuring Hillsborough County.
A spiky blond hot-rod-driving chef Guy Fieri was climbing out of a convertible.
"Oh, I dig rolling into Tampa Bay," he said into the camera. "We're in a historical area known as Ybor City to check out a brew house that's not just handcrafting their beers, they're handcrafting their food."
Geer's eyes widened as he watched Fieri bite into Tampa Bay Brewing Co.'s bacon-wrapped beer-glazed meatloaf and cider wings.
Within days, Geer drove to Ybor, sidled up to the bar and ordered a beer sampler and the same wings he saw on television.
"Phenomenal," he said after the meal. "I was pouting. I thought there weren't any microbreweries here."
Diners, Drive-ins and Dives made him feel as if he'd been let in on a secret. But the show is really the equivalent of a bullhorn. Had Geer looked around, he would've seen several other customers at the restaurant ordering up specials, as seen on TV, just like him.
Such culinary exploratory series, including Heat Seekers, The Best Thing I Ever Ate and Fieri's show — all on the Food Network — and the Travel Channel's Man v. Food, have become economic stimulators for a slew of Hillsborough restaurants.
With cult followings in the millions, the shows expose local food treasures to tourists, snowbirds, transplants — and even some natives — who have yet to hear about the fish tacos at California Tacos to Go, the Cubans at Aguila Sandwich Shop, the chili cheeseburgers at a little place called Danny's All-American Diner.
Some, like Tampa Bay Brewing Co., have had to hire more staff to handle the influx of customers.
Just before the show aired in October, general manager Ryan Kelly hired four additional servers and two more line cooks based on Fieri's recommendation and the experiences of Munch's Restaurant in St. Petersburg. Munch's experienced a tidal wave of new customers after it was featured on the show in 2007.
Sure enough, the brewing company experienced a 33 percent increase in business that hasn't waned thanks to consistent reruns.
"As the show continues to air, we get killed," Kelly said.
The episode featuring the Tampa Bay Brewing Co. aired again Feb. 26, and three days later, the brewery sold 40 meat loaves in one day.
"That's another way we can tell," Kelly said. "It's meatloaf, mussels and wings all day long."
The phenomenon wasn't limited to the brew house. Just ask Danny's All-American Diner on N Falkenburg Road, featured on the same episode.
"Ever since the show aired," owner Gayle Doak said, "they've been knocking us over."
Or California Tacos to Go on Skipper Road, which was on that same show.
"Probably about an 80 percent increase in business and it continues to grow," owner Charles Morrell said. "It's all good. Extra people got extra jobs."
Morrell said he hired three more employees after the show featured his fish tacos made with grilled corn tortillas, tempura-battered grouper, cabbage, guacamole, pico de gallo, cheese and a white sauce made from dill, capers and yogurt.
While the Food Network and its parent company could not be reached, restaurant owners say they were chosen thanks to a little bit of luck, customer appreciation and reputation. Faithful customers sent emails to the Food Network and Travel Channel, begging for features on their favorite haunts.
They desire nothing more than to see TV personality Adam Richman stuff his mouth with their favorite Cuban sandwich on Man v. Food.
"A customer had gotten in touch with him and told him we were very good," said Cindy Aguila, explaining how her family's Aguila Sandwich Shop was spotlighted on the show. "They like to watch the challenges and see how much he can eat."
The sandwich shop, on W Hillsborough Avenue, has been around town for 24 years under its current name or former iteration as La Ideal and has a built-in, large local following. But what the shop didn't expect after its Cuban sandwich became a national TV star was the hordes of tourists popping through to taste what Richman had ordered up on the show.
"We've had people come in from all over the country," Aguila said. "California, Hawaii, Maine, everywhere. If they're coming to the area, they check where he's been and make sure they try it out."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.