At Tampa Bay farm-to-table restaurants,
you’re being fed fiction
The restaurant’s chalkboard makes claims as you enter from the valet parking lot. At the hostess stand, a cheery board reads, “Welcome to local, farm-fresh Boca.”
Brown butcher paper tops tables and lettuces grow along a wooden wall. In a small market case, I see canned goods from here and produce from somewhere. Check the small print: blackberries from Mexico and blueberries from California.
With the tagline “Local, simple and honest,” Boca Kitchen Bar Market was among the first wave of farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay to make the assertion “we use local products whenever possible.” I’ve reviewed the food. My own words are right there on their website: “local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.”
But I’ve been had, from the snapper down to the beef.
It’s not just Boca. At Pelagia Trattoria at International Plaza, the “Florida blue crab” comes from the Indian Ocean.
Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights shouts “Death to Pretenders” on its menu, but pretends cheese curds are homemade and shrimp are from Florida.
At Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar, chefs claim to get pork from a farmer who doesn’t sell to them.
This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.
More often than not, those things are fairy tales. A long list of Tampa Bay restaurants are willing to capitalize on our hunger for the story.
People want “local,” and they’re willing to pay. Local promises food that is fresher and tastes better; it means better food safety; it yields a smaller carbon footprint while preserving genetic diversity; it builds community.
“They say if you spend your money locally, it gets multiplied three times,” said Michael Novilla, who owns Nova 535 event space in St. Petersburg and tries to buy local, from soup to soap.
He was speaking of the local multiplier effect, a term coined in the 1930s by economist John Maynard Keynes. And part of Novilla’s motivation is health, finding clean sources for the food he eats. So if he found out markets and restaurants he loved were playing fast and loose with the truth?
“It would be like finding out your husband was married to someone else the whole time.”
One of his favorite places to eat local is The Mill.
The Mill in St. Petersburg opened last summer to instant acclaim. With walls that look like tooled leather saddles, a men’s room sink inset in a tractor tire and chandeliers made of wagon wheels and mason jars, it’s what the designer called “farmhouse industrial chic.” Sandwiches run around $13 at lunch, and at dinner, sous vide fried chicken hits $24.
We gave it three stars out of four, and in December it was awarded best new restaurant in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon awards.
Servers are likely to start proceedings with a mini-disquisition on how all the food comes from within a couple hundred miles of the restaurant (mileage may vary).
“Everybody’s spiel is a little different,” said chef-owner Ted Dorsey. “But I say a 250-mile radius.”
Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Son, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.
I called him on all this. He said he needed to speak with his chef, Zach West, and get back to us. The results didn’t get any closer: farmed trout from Idaho, beef from Colorado, yellowfin tuna off the northern East Coast.
“Local Florida proteins are not quality,” Dorsey explained. But what about the mileage claims?
“Well, we serve local within reason.”
If you eat food, you are being lied to every day.
The food supply chain is so vast and so complicated. It has yielded extra-virgin olive oil that is actually colored sunflower oil, Parmesan cheese bulked up with wood pulp, and a horsemeat scandal that, for a while, rendered Ikea outings Swedish meatball-free.
Everywhere you look, you see the claims: “sustainable,” “naturally raised,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” “fair trade,” “responsibly grown.” Restaurants have reached new levels of hyperbole.
What makes buying food different from other forms of commerce is this: It’s a trust-based system. How do you know the Dover sole on your plate is Dover sole? Only that the restaurateur said so.
And how can you be sure the strawberries your toddler is gobbling are free of pesticides? Only because the vendor at the farmers market said so.
Your purchases are unverifiable unless you drive to that farm or track back through a restaurant’s distributors and ask for invoices.
For several months, I sifted through menus from every restaurant I’ve reviewed since the farm-to-table trend started. Of 239 restaurants still in business, 54 were making claims about the provenance of their ingredients.
For fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples. The Times had them DNA tested by scientists at the University of South Florida. I called producers and vendors. I visited farms.
My conclusion? Just about everyone tells tales. Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or “greenwashing.”
I have been a restaurant critic since 1991 and have always known there are fraudulent menu claims. This “housemade dessert” is Sysco’s Fudgy Wudgy chocolate layer cake I’ve eaten a dozen times. That “fresh snapper” has done serious freezer time. I know about the St. Petersburg restaurant that refilled Evian bottles with tap, the fancy Tampa restaurant where the “house wine” is a dump of open bottles on their last legs.
It was around 2012 that Tampa Bay menus sprouted the sentence “we source locally” near the admonition about consuming raw or undercooked meats. Fiction started to seem like the daily special.
Most restaurants buy food from one of a small handful of distributors who source products in bulk at the best price from around the world.
The national biggies are Sysco and US Foods. Smaller Florida-based companies include Cheney Brothers and Weyand. Then there are specialty distributors such as Master Purveyors in Tampa or Culinary Classics in Orlando. Most restaurants do not have the time or wherewithal to deal directly with farmers and producers; most farmers and producers don’t have the infrastructure to do their own sales, marketing and delivery.
So the storytelling begins.
Mermaid Tavern has been a Seminole Heights draw for craft beer since it opened in 2011. In 2015, Gary Moran, chef-owner of the defunct restaurant Wimauma, took over in the kitchen at the restaurant owned by Becky Flanders and Lux DeVoid, tweaking an edgy, independent-minded menu.
The restaurant’s tagline is “Death to Pretenders,” and one of the appetizers is the “F**k Monsanto Salad.” Monsanto, if you need a reminder, has come under fire for innovations such as Agent Orange, Roundup and genetically modified “frankenseeds.”
The menu reads: 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.
During Tampa Bay Beer Week, I stopped in to eat.
“Do you make your cheese curds here?”
“Yes,” said the bartender, “everything is made in house from scratch.”
Only it’s not. Those cheese curds arrive in a box. The fish and chips, which the menu says uses wild Alaskan pollock, are made from frozen Chinese pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, a common preservative.
, Preference Brand from Gulf Coast Seafood.
Moran didn’t deny it.
“We try to do local and sustainable as much as possible, but it’s not 100 percent,” he said. “For the price point we’re trying to sell items, it’s just not possible.”
And that F**k Monsanto Salad? Moran said he buys his produce at wholesaler Sanwa on Hillsborough Avenue. According to Sanwa produce buyer Beatrice Reyes, while produce is labeled by country of origin, it would not be labeled as “local” or “non-GMO.” Unless you’re buying from Sanwa’s small organic section, there’s no way to assure you’re getting non-GMO. Even some certified organic foods have been found to contain GMOs.
Could some of the ingredients in the salad be grown from Monsanto seed?
“It’s really hard to find non-GMO produce,” Moran said.
Moran followed up via email, claiming to also shop at farmers markets and providing a list of ingredients he believes to be non-GMO.
Government oversight regarding the word “local” is nearly non-existent. In many cases, farmers police things themselves.
Jim Wood pasture-raises Hereford pigs at his Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park. He’s so frustrated with restaurants lying about using his pork that his invoices now say, “You cannot use my name unless you reference the line item sold.” That includes chalkboards.
“Chefs make a lot more money by using my name and selling someone else’s product,” he said. “There are some chefs who respect us and respect our brand, and others who use it for monetary gain without compensating us.
“I don’t think Adam Putnam has a clue what’s going on.”
He was referring to Florida’s two-term Commissioner of Agriculture and likely candidate for governor. Putnam oversees Fresh from Florida, a state-run food marketing program with an annual budget just under $10 million. The program was created to give small producers an avenue to be part of a brand. Recently, the program has sponsored advertising on an Xfinity Series race car.
In 2013, an On the Menu program was added for restaurants. Restaurants fill out a two-part application and, once accepted, are able to use the Fresh from Florida logo to identify ingredients grown or produced in the state.
Here’s how it goes awry.
Restaurants supply vendor information up front about their sources for Florida-grown products, said Putnam’s press secretary, Aaron Keller. But otherwise, the program is an honor system. No restaurant has ever been demoted or removed.
And while the Fresh from Florida logo is supposed to apply to specific ingredients, restaurateurs may slap it on menus, giving the impression that it represents everything.
Putnam declined several requests for interviews. Keller said the program was never intended to be regulatory and that its aim was to encourage reputable restaurants to source Florida products.
And if they lie?
“Should a restaurant misuse the program or intentionally mislead consumers, that’s a different matter entirely, which we would want to pursue.”
I called Joel Salatin, arguably the country’s most famous farmer, whom you might recognize from the documentary Food, Inc. or from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He opined while waiting for a load of manure at his Polyface farm in Virginia.
“Anybody who trusts the government with our food hasn’t been paying attention very much,” Salatin said. “The government’s track record on food is pretty abysmal.”
“We’re on the front edge of a “local-food tsunami,” he said. And nearly no one is keeping watch.
For 40,000-some Florida restaurants, 191 inspectors from the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation oversee them all for safety, sanitation and — occasionally — lies. By comparison, Georgia, with about half the population, has 300 inspectors. Ohio has 637 for about 22,000 restaurants.
In the past two years, Florida inspectors found roughly 750 food misrepresentation violations. Of them, 123 restaurants were fined, with an average fine for first-time offenders between $150 and $300.
Count among the violators Koto Japanese Steak House and Royal Palace Thai in Tampa’s trendy SoHo District, and That’s Amore on Harbour Island. Places like Tarpon Springs’ now-closed Zante Cafe Neo were repeat offenders for misrepresenting fish.
Old-timers like Gulfport’s La Cote Basque were dinged for advertising veal schnitzel dishes but having no veal in sight. “No packages commercially labeled veal (and) no veal invoices are present (but a) large volume of frozen pork chops and sliced pork” were observed. Wholesale veal can cost three times as much as pork. For pork-eschewing Muslims and Jews: Surprise.
None of these was fined.
Of the 95 misrepresentations in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties over the past two years, none had to do with farm-to-table myths. None were because conventional produce was substituted for advertised organic, or because commodity beef was swapped for “grass-fed,” or because “local” greens were really month-old Mexican spring mix.
On average, restaurants are inspected twice a year, more if a restaurant has chronic infractions. An inspector can’t know any of those things just by peering into a walk-in refrigerator.
Maritana Grille at the Don CeSar gets the highest Zagat ratings of any restaurant along Pinellas County’s beaches. It’s the top restaurant at the pink palace built at the height of the Jazz Age. Entrees can run $28 to $48, and a three-course tasting menu with wine pairings is $95.
In February, Maritana listed Jim Wood’s Palmetto Creek pork on the menu. Wood said that he had not sold to the Don CeSar since the departure of previous chef Gavin Pera.
Chef Jose Cuarta took over about seven months ago and inherited a menu with a section titled Small Farms.
The menu listed Hammock Hollow squash with heirloom tomato and olives. Hammock Hollow, a certified organic farm in Island Grove, Fla., has sold lettuces and tomatoes to fancy hotels such as the Willard in Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years.
Hammock Hollow owner Charlie Andrews hasn’t had squash for months, he said, and is definitely not selling it to Maritana Grille.
Asked about this, Cuarta said, “That should come off the menu.”
Asked about the provenance of the unspecified “small farms” venison, Cuarta said he buys 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.
And the section’s “Long Island duck”? It’s actually from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, a duck farm in Pennsylvania. This matters. Long Island is an area long noted for producing some of the finest Pekin ducks in the world.
With its location at Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel and menu of high-end Italian, Pelagia has been a hangout for Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rays players and a regular go-to for business travelers. Hosting events such as a Florida strawberry tasting menu, chef Brett Gardiner has been an active participant in Fresh from Florida promotions.
In March, Pelagia’s menu listed Three Suns Ranch wild boar ragout. Three Suns owner Keith Mann, who has masterminded a plan to take in trapped nuisance hogs in Punta Gorda and have them USDA slaughtered for meat, said no. This has happened to him with several restaurants.
“They want the story and they don’t want to pay the price… I consider it theft. It’s stealing our hard work.”
About Pelagia, he said: “We’ve never sold to them.”
Gardiner said he was surprised Three Suns was named on the menu and that it was a mistake, a holdover from the past, when he’d purchased the pork through a distributor.
The menu touted “local” burrata mozzarella on the caprese salad. Gardiner said it was a product from Fort Lauderdale called Fioretta.
The menu also listed Zellwood corn polenta, Zellwood being Florida’s most famous sweet corn, grown about 15 miles north of Orlando.
“We buy fresh corn from them and cook it down,” said Pelagia sous chef Tim Ducharme.
When reminded that Zellwood corn isn’t in season now, Ducharme said, “Well, we buy fresh corn from someone.”
About the menu’s Florida blue crab:
“We don’t really use blue crab,” Ducharme said. “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 USF’s College of Marine Science, the identification performed by PureMolecular.
Pelagia’s crab is actually a species 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.”
“If they are selling this as Florida blue crab,” said Ulrich, “it’s deceiving.”
When apprised on April 6 of the test results, 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 so 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.”
A half-hour later, he emailed us a revised menu.
Growing locally and sustainably with water conservation and zero-carbon footprint is nice if you can do it.
It’s also expensive, said Robert Tornello of 3 Boys Farm, a hydroponic outfit in Ruskin. Especially when you add strict food safety documentation, greenhouse infrastructure and trained labor costs of $12 to $16 per hour. It’s less than half that in places like Mexico.
“When a driver at $15 an hour has to do a three-hour round trip, plus fuel and overhead, to deliver three $30 cases of greens at 15 percent gross profit, you realize that the system is broken,” he said.
Rebecca Krassnoski of Nature Delivered has sold her naturally raised pork to restaurants like The Refinery and Pearl in the Grove. Here’s a little bit of her math:
Her cost to raise a pig to slaughter weight is $240 to $300, plus $50 to slaughter it and $50 to transport it. So, let’s say her total cost is $400. That whole pig, minus entrails and hair, will weigh 192 pounds. If she sells it at $3 per pound, that’s a sale price of $576.
“I make $200 if everything goes well,” she said. “That’s on a perfect day. On average, I’m lucky if I make $100 on a pig and maybe I raise 100 pigs in a year.”
Ten thousand dollars a year is not a living, she said, but “nobody wants to pay $6 per pound for pork.” Most restaurants can’t, or won’t, pay her what she needs to live.
“I can’t think of a time when my chops have been served at a restaurant on a daily basis,” she said. “I think a lot of times farmers with a good story are used as a billboard.”
And another thing. While it’s fun to nosh house-cured ham biscuits and sip small-batch bourbon in a dining room festooned with antique wheat scythes, for the people who actually grow the food, this isn’t reality.
Farms tend to be where farm-to-table restaurants aren’t, said Craig Rogers, shepherd-in-chief of Border Springs Farm in Virginia.
“The average farmer hasn’t been to a restaurant any fancier than Applebee’s,” he said.
Inside Edition correspondent Lisa Guerrero wore a fitted black blazer and stilettos when she busted with her camera crew into Get Hooked, a casual seafood restaurant in Hudson that on occasion hosts micro-championship little people wrestling.
Taking co-owner John Hill by surprise, she confronted him about his “Delicious Lobster Sensation,” part of a Feb. 8 segment about the frequent fraudulence of lobster dishes.
Although the restaurant has its own fishing boats, and Hill likes to say, “Our refrigerator is the Gulf of Mexico,” its lobster roll-like sandwich is made with a commercial product that contains cheaper fish such as whiting and pollock.
After the show aired, I followed up to see how the revelation had affected the restaurant.
“We’re selling more lobster rolls now than ever, and we’re serving the same product,” co-owner Michelle Bittaker said. “What the show forgot to tell you is that the sandwich is $9.95, with french fries and coleslaw. Nobody in America could serve a real Maine lobster roll for $9.95.”
They also offer a real Maine lobster roll on their specials board, she said, 6 ounces for what she calls a more realistic $24.95.
King & Prince’s Lobster Sensations product has a 12-month freezer life, a 60-day shelf life unopened and a 10-day shelf life opened.
“It’s like the cockroach,” said Michael Peel, longtime owner of the now defunct Crazy Conch Cafe, who worked around seafood for 34 years. “It will be here after a nuclear attack.”
In addition to flavor enhancers disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, the Sensation contains surimi, a fish paste that is flavored, frozen, extruded, dyed, rolled into ribbons and cut into chunks.
Surimi is one of the fastest-growing seafood products in North America. It is also, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, among the most frequent culprits in the state’s food misrepresentation complaints.
“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, is it a duck?” said Peel. “Sometimes, but other times it could be surimi.”
In 2006, the Tampa Bay Times exposed the frequent substitution of other fish species for grouper. Since then, dozens of news outlets have exposed spurious fish claims, yet the misrepresentations continue. In February, I had the grouper sushi roll at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbour Island tested by Ulrich at USF. It was tilapia.
Naturally raised and grass-fed beef are equally fraught with fraud, according to John Bormann, program sales manager for JBS, a leading processor of beef, pork and lamb.
On an average week, 530,000 head of cattle are processed in the United States, he said. Fewer than 12,000 of them are naturally raised and antibiotic free.
“Sysco might buy 4,000 pounds a week of all-natural beef. Do you think that will service all the people who are claiming to sell it?”
If you see all-natural steak for less than $20 on a menu, he said, beware. Most Americans prefer the mouthfeel of corn-fed beef, but words like “hormone-free” and “pasture-raised” taste so much better than “feedlot.”
“Folks think they need a story on almost everything on their menu,” he said.
Noble Crust in St. Petersburg lists Fat Beet and 3 Boys farms on its chalkboard. Tim Curci of Fat Beet said, “It’s a plan, not a farm,” which will eventually grow things for Noble Crust on 9 acres near Race Track Road in Tampa. But right now? Fat Beet supplies a tiny fraction of the restaurant’s herbs. And 3 Boys’ Tornello said he hasn’t sold to Noble Crust since the end of last year.
“That chalkboard needs to be updated,” Noble Crust co-owner T.J. Thielbar said. “I do agree, it’s a misrepresentation.”
Not so bad when compared to Marchand’s at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg, which listed 3 Boys for a year past their last purchase, until Tornello said he wrote a letter asking them to remove it, which they did. Vinoy chef Mark Heimann confirmed this.
The menu at St. Petersburg’s Stillwaters Tavern touts: locally produced dairy, vegetables, grains, seafood and shellfish … we work with local artisans, farmers and foragers to serve the best of each season.
Grains? Maybe, if grits from Tallahassee made with corn from Kentucky are “local.”
Mistakes happen. On April 6, the bar menu at The Canopy at The Birchwood in St. Petersburg listed Faithful Farms as a provider of lettuces. The farm went out of business last summer. When asked about it, chef Jason Cline said, “I forgot that was on the menu. I’m totally embarrassed. I’m literally taking it off the menu right now. Within the hour.”
And then there’s this guy.
Antonino Casamento started with eight Mediterranean water buffalo a few years ago, he said, his herd growing to more than 30.
Not to be confused with American bison, these curvy-horned creatures are milked from Rome to Salerno, their milk turned into mozzarella and other prized Italian cheeses that often command double the price of cow’s milk cheeses. Richer and more flavorful, buffalo milk is also lower in cholesterol and higher in protein and calcium.
These days, Casamento is selling between 10 and 15 varieties of what he said are his own buffalo milk cheeses out of the tiny Mozzarella Bar he runs as a restaurant in Tampa. State officials said it is not permitted to sell wine, which it does.
While you eat your cheese at up to $26 per pound, he will show you his “bible,” a photo album of his water buffalo.
It appears his bible is a fairy tale.
While he once sold his cheeses at St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market and other outdoor stands, questions arose that he was substituting cow’s milk from Dakin Dairy in Myakka. Jerry Dakin confirmed he was selling milk to Casamento, but said Casamento hasn’t bought any in the past year.
In January 2015, Casamento was accused of animal cruelty over a calf in Plant City found tied to a post too tightly, with an eye injury and a rope embedded in the muscle tissue of its neck. In February 2015 he signed a settlement with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office relinquishing ownership of the calf and agreeing to have Brandon veterinarian Mark Mayo inspect his herd.
“He really did love on 'em,” Mayo said of his visit. “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.”
According to EcoFarm’s Jon Butts, Casamento sold his water buffalo about a year ago, many for their meat. Butts took two males and a female at his Plant City farm, but said Casamento has not been buying their milk.
Casamento said he sold some buffalo, but keeps other animals with a farmer named “Satia” in Myakka. He couldn’t tell me how many buffalo Satia has, nor Satia’s last name, address or phone number.
Repeated calls went unanswered until I received this text: 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.
I told him we couldn’t find anyone in Myakka who knew about a herd of water buffalo and asked if he was declining to reveal their whereabouts.
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.
There are restaurateurs selling precisely what they say they are. But the list makes for strange bedfellows.
Greg Seymour owns Pizzeria Gregario in Safety Harbor. He buys whole pigs from EcoFarm and makes his own bacon, tasso and fennel sausage. He makes his own mozzarella and yogurt from local milk and sources produce only from local farms that have organic certification or use organic practices. It’s all listed on a crowded chalkboard. The farmers say he’s the real deal. This is a guy who hasn’t eaten asparagus for years because it doesn’t grow here.
“I choose to do it because it’s what I think is right,” he said. “And I’m just dogmatic in the way I do things.”
But that has got to be expensive.
“It’s brutally expensive, so it’s challenging because consumers are used to inexpensive food,” he said. “It’s hard for them to compare apples to oranges. I have low overhead and I don’t mind working 80 hours a week. But I’m a pizzeria, right? So I can’t charge for a high food cost.”
A 12-inch pie with housemade fennel sausage and pickled banana peppers: $17.
Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez at Rooster & the Till in Seminole Heights, although thoroughly sick of the term “farm to table,” source locally for much of their food. Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm in Tampa grows specifically for Rooster, but has been misrepresented by other restaurants.
The first tipoff on a menu? Constancy.
“The only thing we can grow year-round is lettuce,” said Urban Oasis co-owner Cathy Hume. “If they have collard greens on the menu in June, something is wrong.”
Some restaurants have their own farms. Bern’s Steak House’s menu ends with a section about its organic farm: Depending on the seasons and the weather, we try to serve what we grow on our farm daily to our customers.
In 2012, the Times reported that Bern’s Steak House was overreaching on organic claims, getting most produce from conventional suppliers. On a visit to the relocated farm in February (Bern Laxer’s original farm is now soccer fields and a Wawa), there was significantly more produce growing. Bern’s declined to comment for this story.
There are also restaurants that make no claims at all.
Jeannie Pierola doesn’t shy away from lavish descriptions at her Edison: food+drink lab in Tampa. Red snapper a la plancha with avocado coconut grits, organic baby spinach, merguez marmalade, avocado coconut chutney and mango harissa puree. Research shows people will pay more when descriptions are longer.
But Pierola, who did a James Beard House dinner in 2015 celebrating Florida’s indigenous foods, scarcely mentions provenance.
“I assume my guests know I am always pursuing the best product,” she said.
Cafe Ponte chef-owner Chris Ponte deals with more than 30 vendors for his 14-year-old Clearwater restaurant. He doesn’t list any small farms.
“It’s too difficult to be true farm to table,” he said. “It would be awesome if you could one-stop shop.”
It’s difficult, but you sort of can. There are people like Emily Rankin of Local Roots and John Matthews of Suncoast Food Alliance, a new breed of middlemen connecting chefs to farmers. Rankin helps deliver the food of about 60 producers a year to around 100 restaurants. But the average restaurant works with 300 ingredients. She said her supply can only cover a small portion of any menu.
How much is enough, in good faith, to make farm-to-table claims?
The owners of The Refinery are widely known champions of local. They choose their words carefully.
“Have you ever noticed we have never said we are a farm-to-fork restaurant?” asked Michelle Baker, co-owner of the Tampa restaurant with her husband, Greg. “We’ve simply stated that we buy as much as we can … We’ve fought and forged these farm relationships because it’s just the right thing to do.”
The James Beard Foundation named The Refinery a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2011 and named Greg Baker a semifinalist for Best Chef South for the past five years. Beyond Bern’s, it may be the Tampa Bay restaurant best known nationally.
The Refinery’s website reads: If it wasn’t grown in Florida or produced using ethically sound methods, you probably won’t find it here.
Not everything has gone as planned.
“They have a solid business model for sourcing produce, but it’s shakier for protein,” said Mike Peters, who was purchasing manager when the Bakers’ second restaurant, Fodder & Shine, debuted at the end of 2014. A diligent re-creation of early Florida Cracker food, it came complete with hardtack and beef from Cracker cattle.
“I wound up losing so much money, I couldn’t justify it,” Greg Baker said. “We abandoned the whole Cracker idea and began retooling and examining what our customers wanted. They didn’t care about heritage breeds, so we changed our mission.”
Considering the fundamentals you have to have (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, garlic, lemons), Greg Baker said, The Refinery uses 70 to 90 percent local produce, depending on the season. He uses all Florida fish and as much local meat as the market will bear.
“There is a small percentage of people willing to pay for a Pasture Prime pork chop, (which) would be more than $40,” said Michelle Baker.
But at Fodder 2.0?
“Upon reboot of the concept, we immediately stopped claiming to use local anything,” said Greg Baker. “The market demanded different things, at a much lower price point, and one can starve on one’s principles.”
We’re not helpless. Increasingly, there are ways for consumers to track where food comes from. There’s foodwaze.com, which verifies sustainable food businesses. There’s the chef who is also a Stetson University math professor developing a mathematical model to trace food.
“I’m not trying to re-enact a scene from Portlandia,” said Hari Pulapaka, chef-owner of the award-winning farm-to-table Cress in DeLand. “But consumers have to take ownership.”
And there’s an ingenious fish tracing program from Katie Sosa at Sammy’s Seafood in St. Petersburg. Sammy’s records the boat, captain and catch date. Customers can look it all up tableside on their phones.
While Sosa works with up to 200 restaurants, only a handful of folks like Steve Westphal of St. Petersburg’s Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach, and Benito D’Azzo, the chef at Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, use her tool.
Why? Some customers might not like what they read: This fresh fish was caught more than a week ago? Complicated truths are the reality of the entire food industry.
There’s always a ragged edge to innovation, that famous farmer Joel Salatin said. The only path to greater transparency in our food system is consumer activism.
Ask questions. Be prepared for the answers.
“When it comes to something as intimate and personal as our bodies’ fuel,” Salatin said, “I beg people to be as discerning as they are about the Kardashians.”
Since the first Boca debuted in 2012, the parent group rolled out another in Winter Park and a third in Riverview. Two more are set to open.
As of April 5, the website listed vendors King Family Farm and C&D Fruit & Vegetable Company, both in Bradenton. King Family has, for months, been listed as “permanently closed” on Facebook, its phone disconnected. Leanne O’Brien of C&D said they do not sell anything to Boca.
The Riverview chalkboard recently listed Seminole Pride beef and Long & Scott Farms, neither of which are current vendors. While Boca’s Tampa chef, Sandy DeBenedietto, said they buy their Florida pink shrimp through distributor Halperns’ Steak & Gary’s Seafood in Orlando, the distributor has no record of pink shrimp purchases this year.
And on that Tampa chalkboard, Captain Kirk Morgan was said to supply red snapper and grouper.
Morgan is not licensed to sell direct to restaurants, and said he has never sold Boca any fish. Furthermore, he doesn’t catch red snapper or grouper. He catches sheepshead, mullet and jacks.
When confronted, Boca’s executive chef Matt Mangone first said he had met Morgan at I.C. Sharks market in St. Petersburg, and had purchased from him a couple times.
When told the angler said otherwise, Mangone said, “Well, we bought it through a friend of his.”
Morgan had no knowledge of that. Why was his name on the chalkboard?
Mangone uttered a familiar reply.
“I guess the board needs to be updated.”
This story was changed April 15 to reflect that the burrata mozzarella at Pelagia is from Fort Lauderdale, not Italy.
About the story
Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley began to witness an uptick in food provenance claims several years ago. She reported this story over a period of two months, interviewing dozens of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, state officials and food industry experts.
She combed through hundreds of menus from Tampa Bay restaurants, identifying those that made specific claims, and then she investigated those claims. She visited farms, spoke with distributors and had foods genetically tested when deemed necessary.
When she found discrepancies or misrepresentations at restaurants, she gave chefs and restaurateurs the opportunity to explain. As a result of these conversations, a number of the restaurants in the story amended their menus to more accurately reflect what they are selling: Pelagia, Jackson’s Bistro, Mermaid Tavern, The Canopy and Maritana Grille changed their printed menus and Boca Kitchen Bar Market and Noble Crust agreed to change their chalkboards.
Editor: Stephanie Hayes
Photography: Lara Cerri
Design and production: Martin Frobisher and Josie Hollingsworth
Illustrations: Steve Madden
Research: Caryn Baird
News assistant: Kirk Simpkins
Laura Reiley has been the Tampa Bay Times’ food critic since 2007. She has received numerous state and national awards. She is a former critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun and the author of four guidebooks in the Moon Handbook series. She has cooked professionally and is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy.