It's hard to go anywhere in Florida tourism circles these days without running across Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Mise en Place restaurant in Tampa.
She is a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, which put her front and center when President Obama recently announced the easing of international travel restrictions. She also is a board member of Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, and past chairwoman of Tampa Bay & Co., Tampa's tourism agency. And she is on the host committee for the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Meanwhile, the restaurant she co-owns with chef and ex-husband Marty Blitz celebrated its silver anniversary last year and will open a wine and tapas bar at Tampa International Airport in March. They also run Sono Cafe at the Tampa Museum of Art, as well as a busy catering business.
Mise en Place has grown from a small gourmet deli to a Tampa institution with a full-time staff of 60. The day after celebrating her 53rd birthday, Ferenc (pronounced fair-ence) sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to talk tourism, restaurants and lessons learned along the way.
Let's see — a successful restaurant, expansion plans, tourism promotion, the convention in August: A little busy these days?
This is really something, and it has a lot to do with the timing, the fact that we have the opportunity with the RNC. The impact and the business that will bring is obviously a tremendous but an appreciated task. And the amount that's happening on the state and national level with tourism is very intense. So we're really starting off the year running.
When did you decide to get involved in promoting tourism?
It was about a dozen years ago, when I first saw the connection between tourism and restaurants. The tourism industry is growing in our direction; cultural tourism is really becoming a major driver of tourism dollars, and restaurants are a huge part of cultural tourism. In many communities that has already grown, and here I think it's just about to grow in a big way. Dining is still a part of why people travel and where they travel. So I saw tourism as really important to our bottom line.
How has the economic downturn affected you?
We are accepting a little bit higher food costs. Marty has always understood that if something doesn't make money, we won't be able to do it anymore. The economy has made him work harder. He's just really, really good at purchasing. But it does make you make some compromises. One of the things that I think has kept us in business is to keep people employed. Working with the staff is probably at the top of my list. The opportunity to engage my staff and to empower them more, I really get a lot of joy out of that.
What's a typical day like for you?
They all seem to start early and end late, because there is the business end of my job — the administrative, financial end of things — but also the community stuff — Visit Florida, the Chamber, Tampa Bay & Co. Our business and the way we do it — what I call proprietor style — means we're here. And this is what keeps you going — the interaction with clients, the interaction with the staff and the products — this is what jazzes you up.
But then there's the other part of the job, which is the promotional part for the restaurant and for the industry. I would love to sleep in; I'm a night person. But I get up 6:30ish and I do have a little bit of a morning routine, but my day really doesn't end till 10 or 11 or 1 o'clock on the other end. Which is why I'm so protective of Sundays. It's just a chance to focus on something else so you can recharge your batteries and have something to give.
A lot of restaurants don't make it a year, and yours has been here 25 years. How did you do that?
Some of it is two basic things my parents taught me. My mother taught me that the customer is always right even when they're wrong; you always try to find the space in which they are right and that is the space in which you exist with them. My father taught me that it all matters — every nickel, dime and penny — so you have to look at the big and the small dollars, both. Beyond that it's the fact that Marty still loves to cook. I mean he really loves it, and that's a huge piece of the foundation. It all starts with the food. And some of it is when things don't work and you live through it and you negotiate your way out of debt and you come out okay, you have sort of a resiliency; you can say, I know this is difficult, everybody, but we're going to be okay.
You grew up around Detroit. How did you wind up here?
I am a theater major, and I was trying not to go in the restaurant business — quite desperately, actually — so I was waiting tables, of course, and I went to work at a restaurant where Marty was apprenticing in Detroit, where we're from, and we fell in love there and got married. My parents were down here part of the year and we were going to spend three months near my parents in St. Pete Beach. And one day Marty came home and said, I got a job. And that was it. We stayed.
So you're an example of the economic impact of tourism.
I've never really thought of it like that. You're absolutely right! We came here on vacation and started a business. Talk about economic impact! And what brought us here was the beauty of Pinellas County, and we chose to open a business here in Tampa and always have a connection there.
You're running a successful business with an ex-husband for a partner. How did you pull that off?
There was a lot to save. The business employed a lot of people, it employed both of us, it had some family legacy to it, our souls were in it. In many ways it was like managing a family back then. It was a sort of tenuous atmosphere. But we obviously have a lot of respect for each other. It hasn't always been easy. The emotional side of this is way hard.
Do you see one day having one tourism agency for Tampa Bay?
I know that's a hot point for folks, but if we're ever really going to be great, I don't know how we don't.
You were chairwoman of Tampa Bay & Co. when the RNC chose Tampa. What will the convention mean for the region?
The stage is like no other. And it's an opportunity for us as a community to tell our story, and that is going to project out into the world and make us both a business destination and a tourist destination, and it's an opportunity to never go back to the way we are seen today. And some of it is just a shot in the arm economically. People are already here spending money.