Midtown in St. Petersburg is trending.
First there was a steady flow of artists moving to the area. Now investors and businesses are following suit.
Weeks ago, soon after Mayor Bill Foster announced that Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant would be opening in the Manhattan Casino building, we also learned that another private investor, Elihu Brayboy, planned to lease his building at 951 22nd St. S to another restaurant.
That restaurant is Pipo's Cuban Cafe. But to say they're merely opening a restaurant is only half the story. Ramon Hernandez, owner of Pipo's, intends to move the company's corporate operations to the Midtown facility.
"We just felt that there's a need here in St. Pete," Hernandez said. ''There's a market for Cuban food and the people in the area have been so faithful. I think it's a huge market that hasn't been tapped."
Pipo's Cuban Cafe currently has restaurants in Tampa and St. Petersburg, including a downtown location at 437 Central Ave. and another at 9531 Bay Pines Blvd.
"It's a family-run business that has been in Tampa Bay since 1979, and it's moving its central kitchen to Midtown," said an excited Mario Farias, a Pipo's marketing director who grew up in the area.
"That means the entire catering operation will be there," he said, adding that the facility will train chefs and wait staff, preferably from the community.
There will also be a retail location there, serving the restaurant's standard fare.
"This is exciting," said Brayboy, when reached early Friday. "We're very excited about the transition of this building."
The two-story, 10,000-square-foot, historic building is next door to the historic Royal Theater. It will be renovated and should be ready for occupancy in early 2013.
Brayboy said in addition to leasing the 5,000-square-foot first floor, officials at Pipo's have expressed interest in leasing 20 percent of the second floor.
But far more important to Brayboy was Pipo's commitment to hiring ex-offenders.
Both Brayboy and Farias credit St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse in helping to bring the business to the area.
"Sometimes you get lucky," said Nurse. "I knew Elihu and what he was trying to do, and I knew Pipo's was interested in the area. So I arranged a lunch with them.
This is only the beginning, Nurse said.
"We've got four or five manufacturers who are talking about moving to the area."
Nurse knows that once things start to move, others businesses will quickly follow.
"You do the Manhattan Casino and Brayboy's building, coupled with an investor buying the electrical supply place and the university (St. Petersburg College) breaking ground in October … with that kind of activity going on, you create a sense of momentum," said Nurse.
"It's getting the first couple (of businesses) … that's the hard part," he said.
Nurse said he really likes the plan in place for Pipo's.
"It helps because they don't have to live or die on the immediate success of the restaurant. It lowers their risks."
Hernandez said the facility should be open early next year.
Sandra J, Gadsden can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8874 or on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.