Spot the fables on these 10 Tampa Bay menus
If you have a restaurant you think we should investigate, contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.
901 W Platt St., Tampa
358 N Park Ave., Winter Park
11206 Sullivan St., Riverview
Parent group BE-1 Concepts has rolled out two more locations since the Tampa one opened in 2012, with two more set to open in Sarasota and St. Petersburg. The restaurant group continues to make bold claims about the provenance of food on its menus, chalkboards and website.
Many of these claims are not true.
- In February on the Tampa location’s chalkboard, Captain Kirk Morgan was listed as a supplier of red snapper and grouper. When we contacted the St. Petersburg commercial fisherman, he said he had never sold Boca any fish and that he only catches sheepshead, mullet and jacks. He remembers exchanging business cards with a chef several months ago while selling mullet at I.C. Sharks on Gandy Boulevard, but the chef was disappointed when he learned for which species Morgan fishes.
When confronted about this on Feb. 19, the following exchange took place with Boca’s executive chef Matt Mangone:
Times: It says on the Tampa chalkboard that you buy red snapper and grouper from Capt. Kirk Morgan. How did you get his fish?
Mangone: “I met him at I.C. Sharks and we bought from him a couple times.”
T: He says he’s never sold fish to you and that he doesn’t catch grouper or snapper.
M: “Well, we bought it through a friend of his.”
T: He has no knowledge of that. Why is his name on the chalkboard then?
M: “I guess the board needs to be updated.”
- In a similar vein, we asked Mangone what they buy from Long & Scott Farms (listed in February on the chalkboard at Boca in Riverview, it is the producer of Zellwood corn, Florida’s most prized corn).
M: “In the summer we get corn.”
T: But it’s on the chalkboard now. What are you getting now?
M: “Nothing right now.” (On Feb. 16, Long & Scott’s Bill Olvey confirmed that “there is no corn available now.”)
- The Tampa menu claims two different brand-name naturally raised chickens, Joyce Farms and Tecumseh Farms. Boca’s Tampa chef Sandy DeBenedietto said they buy both from Culinary Classics in Orlando. On Feb. 16, Dave Abdy at Culinary Classics checked records and said yes on Joyce, but no on Tecumseh.
- DeBenedietto said the menu’s advertised Florida pink shrimp are purchased through Halperns’ Steak & Gary’s Seafood in Orlando. Halpern’s sales manager Richard Starke checked sales reports on Feb. 8 and said no Florida pink shrimp have been purchased through them in this calendar year.
- As of April 5, the Boca website listed vendors King Family Farm and C&D Fruit & Vegetable Company, both in Bradenton. King Family has for months been listed on Facebook as “permanently closed” with the phone disconnected. Leanne O’Brien of C&D said on March 4 that they do not sell anything to Boca.
- The Riverview location’s chalkboard lists Seminole Pride beef. The Seminole Tribe’s Michael Sauceda said on March 9 that he has sold to Boca in the past and hopes to again in the future, but at the current time, is not supplying Boca with any beef.
- Read Boca’s response to the story here.
In regards to Boca’s claim that “two Boca products were incorrectly characterized” in the story:
I spoke with Halpern’s/Gary’s sales manager Richard Starke on Feb. 8. He checked invoices and said Boca restaurants had not purchased Joyce Farms or Tecumseh Farms chicken through them, nor Lake Meadows duck, nor Florida pink shrimp since the start of the year.
That same day, I spoke with Shawn McCranie, operations manager of Master Purveyors in Tampa. He said he was selling all of the Boca locations Prairie Fresh all-natural pork butt, Maple Leaf Farms duck, Master Purveyors’ own ground chicken and North Country Smokehouse slab bacon. Not Tecumseh Farms or Joyce Farms chicken, not Lake Meadows duck and no Florida pink shrimp.
And on Feb. 16, I spoke with Dave Adby of Culinary Classics in Orlando. He said that since Jan. 1, Boca had purchased specialty foods such as wild mushrooms, oils, vinegars, Bell and Evans chickens, Joyce chickens, Lake Meadows duck eggs and Pasture Prime ribs. Again, no Tecumseh Farms chickens and no Florida pink shrimp.
340 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg
Chef Jason Cline, who oversees both the fine-dining Birch & Vine on the first floor and the more casual Canopy upstairs, with its sweeping views of Tampa Bay and Straub Park, sources quite a bit from local farms. Primarily via farm middleman John Matthews of Suncoast Food Alliance, his salads currently feature a mix of greens from Watercress Farms in Myakka City and Uriah’s Urban Farm, an indoor vertical farm in Tampa.
In April, I had dinner at The Canopy. I had some fried nibbles and then considered ordering something a little healthier, maybe a salad. And there it was on the Canopy’s menu: Lettuces from Faithful Farms, a St. Petersburg farm that went out of business last summer.
- When asked, the waiter seemed chagrined. “I think that farm is out of business. I’ll ask in the kitchen where the greens are from.” He returned promptly: From Myakka City.
- In a phone conversation on April 10, Cline was remorseful: “I forgot that was on the menu. I’m totally embarrassed. I’m literally taking it off the menu right now. Within the hour. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. It wasn’t on purpose.”
14333 Crab Trap Court, Hudson
A casual seafood restaurant, it has been in this location for one year and a previous one for four. It was recently the subject of an Inside Edition segment on frequent lobster fraud in restaurants. Using DNA testing, they found that 35 percent of the samples they tested nationally contained cheap substitutes instead of lobster.
“They pulled up in a van and bombarded us at dinner time,” remembered co-owner Michelle Bittaker. “The producer came in and asked for the owner, and then the lady jumped out wearing her stilettos. We weren’t scared; we tried to explain to her that this was ridiculous.
“What the show forgot to tell you is that the sandwich is $9.95, with French fries and cole slaw. Nobody in America could serve a real Maine lobster roll for $9.95. It’s the cheapest sandwich we have.”
Bittaker said they also offer a real Maine lobster roll on their specials board, six ounces for what she says is a more realistic $24.95.
Their Delicious Lobster Sensation is a lobster roll-like sandwich made with a commercial product that contains cheaper fish like whiting and pollock, served on a New England split-top roll. In addition to flavor enhancers disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate and autolyzed yeast extract, the Sensation contains surimi, a fish paste that is flavored, frozen, extruded, dyed, rolled into ribbons and cut into chunks.
“We talked about it and talked about it,” Bittaker said of conversations after the visit from Inside Edition. “We weren’t trying to cheat the consumer by any means. We sell them and people love them. But even bad publicity is publicity.”
601 S Harbour Island Blvd., Tampa
In June 2014, Jackson’s Bistro was issued a warning from the Division of Hotels and Restaurants for advertising crab on the menu but serving imitation crab (one of the most common offenses). Since that time, Jackson’s Bistro has changed hands, but we decided to take a look at the menu.
- Many restaurants in the Tampa Bay area serve sushi rolls with fake crab, often called surimi, crab stick or kani, made of a dyed paste created by grinding and combining different species of fish in order to mimic crab. It is commonly referred to on menus as “krab.” At Jackson’s, while some sushi rolls feature “lump crab,” fake crab was referred to on the menu as of April 3 simply as “crab.” Is this misleading? According to Travis Keels of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, it is a misrepresentation if a “food or food product is served, sold, or distributed under the name of another food or food product.”
- Jackson’s Tampa roll was described before April 4 as “tempura fresh grouper, green onion, spicy mayo.” Bob Ulrich at USF’s College of Marine Science conducted DNA testing on the roll and determined that it was actually tilapia.
- The USDA grades beef: Select is lean and less marbled; choice (the most common in restaurants and grocery stores) is higher quality; prime, only about 2 percent of all beef graded by the USDA, is the highest of all. On Jackson’s menu before April 4, a section heading read: “Prime Meat Preparations,” but the steaks and short ribs listed beneath (not to mention the pork, which is not USDA graded at all) were not USDA prime. “Prime” is not merely a synonym for the adjective “premium.” It has a legal definition.
- New owner Chris McVety, when apprised of these misrepresentations on April 4, said, “My response is thank you for bringing this to my attention ... There is no lack of caring with this new ownership. This is my community — Jackson’s is Gasparilla, it’s New Year’s Eve. The most important thing I have is my word.” After the phone call, McVety emailed a photo of an amended menu with fake crab spelled “krab,” and he said the Tampa roll had been “pulled from the menu until we can work this out.” “Prime” was also removed as a description of the beef.
The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort and Golf Club, 501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg
A box at the bottom of the Marchand’s menu states, We will always use local farms whenever possible to bring you the freshest meats, fish and produce available. These farms represent some of the fresh ingredients on your plate.
In April Marchand’s hired chef Joseph Gattuso, most recently of Locale Market, who will be heavily involved in sourcing product for the hotel, according to Mark Heimann, director of restaurant operations. Meanwhile, Heimann walked me through the farms listed currently.
- “Most of our produce comes from Local Roots. We were using Growing Synergy, but they are no longer around.” Local Roots, out of Orlando, is a middleman that sources local products for restaurants. While it is not accurate to characterize it as a “farm,” the company confirms that it sells to the Vinoy, as does Uriah’s Urban Farms (lettuces) and Glory Road Gardens (microgreens). In April, the menu also listed Infinite Herbs as a “local” farm. Infinite is a huge herb conglomerate based in Boston with farms in Colombia, Mexico, California, Florida and elsewhere.
- In April, the menu listed Lake Meadows Naturals as a source for chickens.
- Cypress Point Creamy in Hawthorne and Sweet Grass Dairy in South Georgia were both listed as cheese providers. Heimann said these products are offered only on the bar menu, not on the main Marchand’s menu where they are listed.
- The menu listed Bradley’s Country Store as a vendor, a store in Tallahassee famous for its grits made with Kentucky corn. There are no grits on the current menu. Heimann said, “We use it for features mostly.” When asked if those grits could be considered local, he said, “I would classify them as local with the corn coming from Kentucky.”
- Marchand’s previously worked with 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin. Owner Robert Tornello said the restaurant listed him as a vendor a full year after they stopped selling to the hotel. Tornello wrote a letter asking the Vinoy to remove their name. “Yes, he did,” confirms Heimann.
3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
Chef Jose Cuarta took over from Gavin Pera as chef of the Loews Don CeSar Hotel’s marquee restaurant in fall of 2015, by his own account. He inherited a menu that featured a central section titled Small Farms.
- In that section, the vegetarian entree at the end of February listed a Hammock Hollow squash with heirloom tomato and olives. Hammock Hollow farmer Charlie Andrews said on Feb. 20 that he hasn’t had squash for months and is definitely not selling to Maritana Grille. This is not the first time Andrews, who operates in Island Grove, Fla., has seen this kind of misattribution: “There’s a lot of shake in the system.” When asked about Hammock Hollow, Cuarta said, “That should come off the menu.”
- When asked about the provenance of the unspecified “small farms” venison, Cuarta said he was purchasing it from Jackman Ranch in Clewiston. Jackman’s Mark Hoegh said that while he does sell the Don CeSar wagyu filet mignon, he does not sell them venison because he does not produce venison.
- When asked about the provenance of the section’s advertised Long Island duck (an area historically producing some of the finest Pekin ducks in the world), Cuerta said he was buying from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, a duck farm in Pennsylvania.
- In the appetizer section of the menu, Palmetto Creek pork was named. In February, Palmetto Creek owner Jim Wood said he hasn’t sold to Maritana Grille since chef Pera departed. When asked about this, Cuarta said, “You’re putting me on the spot here. That’s another one that’s left over from Gavin.”
6719 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa
The nightspot has been a Seminole Heights draw for craft beer since it opened in 2011. Last fall, veteran Tampa Bay chef Gary Moran, chef-owner of the defunct Wimauma, took over in the kitchen. The restaurant’s tagline is “Death to Pretenders” and one of the appetizers is the “F**k Monsanto salad.”
A box at the bottom of the menu in April read: This menu is free of hormones, antibiotics, chemical additives, genetic modification, and virtually from scratch. We fry in organic coconut oil and source local distributors, farmers, brewers and family wineries....Our fish is fresh from Florida or sustainable/wild fisheries.
- “From scratch” cheese curds arrive in a box on the back of a truck.
- The fish and chips, which the menu said are made of wild Alaskan pollock, are made from Chinese pollock treated with the preservative chemical sodium tripolyphosphate.
- The menu claimed its shrimp are Florida wild caught, but they are actually farm-raised in India, Preference Brand from Gulf Coast Seafood.
- Moran said in March he buys his produce at wholesaler Sanwa on Hillsborough Avenue. According to produce buyer Beatrice Reyes, while produce is labeled by country of origin, it would not be labeled as “local” or “non GMO.” So there’s a chance something in the F**K Monsanto salad could be grown from Monstanto seed. Moran admitted, “It’s really hard to get non-GMO stuff. I love corn, but we can’t find it.”
- When asked about the menu substitutions for fish and shrimp, Moran said, “We try to do local and sustainable as much as possible, but it’s not 100 percent all the time. For the price point we’re trying to sell items, it’s just not possible.”
- On April 10, DeVoid called to say that the farm-to-table claims were mostly his doing. He took responsibility for misrepresentations on the fish and shrimp, but said that there had been a miscommunication since September with his shrimp vendor and that package labeling on the shrimp was misleading and he hadn’t read the fine print.
200 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Chef-owner Ted Dorsey has had a celebrated career at Tampa Bay restaurants from Boca, Copperfish and Ciro’s Speakeasy in Tampa to Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach. He opened The Mill last year, which was immediately lauded for its edgy design and layered, nuanced, New American farm-to-table fare.
Sandwiches at The Mill can run around $13 at lunch; at dinner sous vide fried chicken hits $24 and a Flintstones-sized pork chop rings in at $29. Servers are likely to start proceedings with a spiel about how all the food comes from within a couple hundred miles of the restaurant.
- Dorsey said on March 28 he was purchasing pork from a small Tallahassee farm through Master Purveyors. Shawn McCranie at Master Purveyors said, “As for pork I am not sure what he is getting from Tallahassee. I do not have any pork from there.”
- He said he was getting local quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. I couldn’t find any evidence of a current quail farm called Magnolia Farms in Lake City and McCranie said he sells the restaurant Durham Ranch quail from Wyoming.
- Dorsey said he was buying local dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms through Weyand Food Distributors, but sales representative George Kuhn said Weyand doesn’t sell dairy and they definitely don’t sell Dakin.
- Dorsey said he was sourcing local produce through Cee Bee’s Citrus in Odessa as well as through middlemen Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. While Cee Bee’s checks out, John Matthews of Suncoast and Emily Rankin of Local Roots said they’ve never sold to The Mill.
- He listed Sammy’s, Bar Harbor and Whitney and Son as sources for local seafood. The first two checked out, but Whitney and Son’s Jennifer Cruz said they have not yet sold to The Mill and intend to in the future.
- When asked about all these contradictions, Dorsey said he was busy with a new restaurant he will open soon. “I’m going to have to follow up with (chef) Zach West. I honestly don’t even know, I’ve been so busy getting this next project open.”
- He called back and clarified where some of his food was coming from: trout from a farm in Idaho, beef from Aspen Ridge in Colorado, yellowfin tuna off the northern East Coast. In short: The majority of proteins on the menu hailed from far away. On April 19, Whitney and Son Seafoods executive vice president Garrett Cropsey said that an initial delivery occurred on March 30.
- Read The Mill’s response to the story here.
4004 W Neptune St., Tampa
Antonino Casamento runs a tiny Tampa bistro called Mozzarella Bar. Before that, he sold his “buffalo milk cheese” at local outdoor markets including the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg. He started with eight Mediterranean water buffalo a few years ago, and said his herd grew to more than 30. Casamento is now selling between 10 and 15 varieties of what he says are his own buffalo milk cheeses at Mozzarella Bar. His cheeses can cost up to $26 per pound. He is also not permitted by the state to sell wine, which he is doing.
- Questions arose that he was substituting cow’s milk from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka. Jerry Dakin confirmed he bought milk, but said Casamento hasn’t purchased milk from him in the past year.
- In Jan. 2015, Casamento was charged with animal cruelty when a calf in Plant City was found tied to a post too tightly, with an eye injury and a rope embedded in the muscle tissue of its neck. In Feb. 2015, Casamento signed a settlement with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in which he relinquished ownership of the calf and agreed to have Brandon veterinarian Mark Mayo inspect his herd.
“I did go out there and look,” Mayo said on April 12. “These were the friendliest water buffalo I’d ever seen. He really did love on 'em. They were a little down on weight. I wouldn’t say it was a severe animal cruelty case. People have good intentions and sometimes things don’t go well.
“He was talking about selling his herd.”
- Complicating matters for Casamento, U.S. law requires a fresh cheese like mozzarella made with unpasteurized milk be sold “for pet consumption only” because of the potential for harmful bacteria.
- According to EcoFarm’s Jon Butts, Casamento sold his water buffalo about a year ago. Butts keeps several of these animals on his Plant City farm but said Casamento has not been buying their milk.
- A phone conversation with Casamento on March 3 went like this:
Casamento: “I’ve got my herd.”
Times: But I heard you sold them last year.
C: “I sold some. But I’ve got them down in Myakka.”
T: How many do you have?
C: “I don’t remember. I don’t pay attention. They’re on a farm.”
T: What’s the farmer’s name?
C: “His name is Satia.”
T: What’s his last name?
C: “I don’t know.”
T: What’s his address?
C: “I don’t know.”
T: Can you get me his phone number?
C: “I don’t think he can accommodate you. But I can call him and then I’ll call you.”
T: But if they’re on his land and Satia is tending them, are they really your herd?
C: “I’m outsourcing.”
- After that, repeated calls went unanswered until I received this text on March 9: Dear Laura, we’re flattered that you’d like to write about us, as for your inquiry as to our supplier list, we highly respect our supplier’s privacy; our focus has shifted to MB our Italian bistro, and as a restaurateur in a highly competitive market wish to keep them as part of our coveted Italian family recipes. Thank you for your consideration in writing about our authentic Italian restaurant.
- I responded: Thanks for getting back to me. The folks at Dakin Dairy don’t know of any water buffalo in Myakka. So for the story I should say that you declined to reveal the location of your herd of water buffalo?”
- His answer: You’re welcome. One day I’d be happy to chat with you in front of a cup of coffee ... or wine, if you’d like.
4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa
Chef Brett Gardiner has been an active participant in Fresh from Florida food marketing promotions. The state program, with a budget of almost $10 million, operates on the honor system and has yet to eject a participating farmer or restaurant.
- The menu in February listed Three Suns Ranch wild boar ragout. On Feb. 25, Three Suns owner Keith Mann said no: “We’ve never sold to them.” When asked about Three Suns on March 15, chef Gardiner said he was surprised it was named on the menu and that it was a mistake.
- The menu listed Zellwood Farms sweet corn polenta. Said sous chef Tim Ducharme on Feb. 26, “We buy fresh corn from them and cook it down.” When reminded Zellwood corn isn’t in season now, Ducharme said, “Well, we buy fresh corn from someone.”
- The menu touted “local” burrata mozzarella on the caprese salad. When asked about it, chef Gardiner said it was a product from Fort Lauderdale called Fioretta.
- When asked about the menu’s Florida blue crab, Ducharme said, “We don’t really use blue crab. It’s a jumbo lump crab canned product from US Foods out of Miami.” The Times had the crab DNA tested by Bob Ulrich in University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, the identification performed by PureMolecular. Pelagia’s crab was actually a different species of crab called “swimming blue crab” from the Indian or West Pacific Ocean. The FDA requires that this be sold simply as “crab” or as “swimming blue crab.”
- When apprised on April 6 of the results of the test, Gardiner said, “I’ll own up to that. It’s swimming blue crab. Most of the time it comes from Indonesia or Vietnam. I guess we’ve been calling it that for long, but it should say jumbo lump crab. It’s obviously an oversight on my part. I try not to be malicious or mislead people on the menu. I already pulled Three Suns and Zellwood off the menu.”
- Within a half hour of that phone conversation, Gardiner emailed the Times a new menu with many of the above claims removed.