TAMPA — At a former industrial warehouse in the heart of West Tampa, Gasparilla Day begins long before dawn.
At 2 a.m., the first of a thousand pieces of chicken hit the fryers, destined for the most important mouths of the day: the rowdy pirates aboard the Jose Gasparilla.
This is no ordinary fried chicken but a secret recipe passed down from the Palios Brothers, the legendary South Tampa restaurant that fed Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla for nearly 40 years, usually with hundreds of Cuban sandwiches but often with the iconic fried chicken.
When brothers John and George Palios closed the doors in 2003, Steve Gonzalez, co-owner of Catering by the Family, inherited the chicken recipe.
After all, some Gasparilla traditions must be upheld.
And for 20 years, Catering by the Family has been almost as much a Gasparilla Day tradition as pirate garb and beads.
Besides the chicken, the company on Saturday will serve about 9,000 people in 30 corporate tents lining Bayshore Boulevard. More food will be delivered to a dozen floats and to a few private parties.
It's a frenzy of activity, but the cavernous kitchen was deceptively calm Thursday morning. About a dozen workers quietly tended their stations, assembling fruit trays, slicing beef tenderloin, marinating pork in large silver metal trays, filling empanadas. Executive chef Rachid El Yamani shrugged. "It's all about planning,'' he said.
The kitchen crew arrived about 5 a.m. Thursday and would not finish until 10 p.m. They would arrive before sunrise today and power through until 6 p.m., when they try to catch some sleep at home before returning at 2 a.m. for the final push.
"It's going to be a long day Saturday,'' El Yamani said. "Sunday is going to be a sleeping day.''
El Yamani joined the company three months ago after running restaurants in California, so this will be his first Gasparilla. But he inherited a well-oiled machine.
It's the biggest day of the year for Catering by the Family, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Not that there's time to celebrate. The Florida State Fair is right around the corner, as are "the wedding months,'' as Gonzalez calls them (February, March and April). The company also runs the food court at TECO Plaza downtown and the Tampa Catholic High School cafeteria. Summer is slow, though the Republican National Convention should give a boost to August.
Gasparilla is so hectic that Gonzalez, 52, doesn't have time to join his fellow Krewe of the Knights of Sant 'Yago members in the parade. Instead, he spends the day in a golf cart troubleshooting the tents while his sister Carol Guggino oversees food preparation with El Yamani at a mobile food tent on Bayshore.
Nothing is cooked ahead of time, Gonzalez says. The menus weren't finalized until last week. An employee spent the weekend figuring out what to buy. The orders were placed Monday and the food began arriving Tuesday. On Wednesday, the first batch of cookies and brownies went in the oven. Thursday was food prep, such as marinating pork and breaking things down to containers, and more cookies. "We've worked the kinks out as it's gotten bigger,'' Gonzalez said.
Which is why the company has kept the Gasparilla corporate tent contract for 20 years, said Darrell Stefany, president of EventFest, which puts on the invasion and parade. "We're delighted with what they do,'' Stefany said. "We always hear glowing comments about the food and how it's presented and served.''
Catering by the Family began as an offshoot of the Family Sandwich Shoppe on Henderson Boulevard, which opened in 1976. It closed in 1984, two years after Gonzalez and Guggino branched out with their nearby catering business.
Their current location is their third and biggest. Opened in 2002, it encompasses 17,500 square feet on Cypress Street between N Howard and Armenia avenues, with a 3,500-square-foot kitchen and a 12,000-square-foot warehouse stuffed to the rafters with pots, pans, serving bowls, utensils, chafing dishes, heat lamps and anything else needed for an event.
The company has survived the economic downturn, but reduced its full-time staff from 35 to about 20. That core group is augmented by an army of temporary workers. About 75 people will be deployed for Gasparilla, some returning every year.
"They may not do anything else for me during the year,'' Gonzalez said, "but they work Gasparilla because it is a pretty spectacular event.''
The company comes up with new menus every year. "We were going to do some pork chops with chutney,'' El Yamani said, "but that didn't fly.''
Instead, 80 percent of the menus are "Tampa traditional'': Cuban sandwiches, roast pork, chicken and yellow rice, black beans, empanadas and devil crab. "People like what they're used to,'' El Yamani said. "I guess it's just tradition.''
Tom Scherberger can be reached at email@example.com.