ST. PETERSBURG — When Locale Market opened in December, St. Petersburg shoppers had never seen anything like it. Fifteen professionally trained chefs going full tilt across a two-story, 20,000-square-foot grocery/butcher/wine bar/bakery/gift store, echoing high-end markets in New York and San Francisco.
But as celebrity chef partners Michael Mina and Don Pintabona got to know the community's tastes, the concept began to be refined and tweaked. Not everything worked as they expected. Mina announced Wednesday that the market will morph again, the most significant change thus far.
As of Wednesday, the whole second floor became FarmTable Kitchen, a 145-seat full-service, sit-down restaurant. All retail moved downstairs. FarmTable will still offer eight-course meals several times a week, and use the private room for parties and groups.
In an exclusive walk-through for the Tampa Bay Times, vice president of operations Michael Cohen debuted the remodeled space, changes by Mesh Fabrication in St. Petersburg marrying elegantly with the original design.
Book-ended by Ruth's Chris Steak House on one side and Sea Salt on the other, this shift may seem like a risky move. Sundial, in its former incarnation as BayWalk, never managed to sustain three second-floor full-service restaurants. You may recall past BayWalk efforts — Dish, Banbu, Grille 121, Dan Marino's — all resting in peace.
So why the shift upstairs now?
"Upstairs is the big evolution," Mina said Wednesday by phone from San Francisco. "We weren't sure what the restaurant dynamic in the store was going to bring. When we opened we thought we'd do (the 10-seat communal table room) and then do a casual wine bar. But we've had so much demand for there to be a full restaurant component. The communal table piece works just fine, but all those other seats, people wanted the ability to make a reservation, so they weren't seats within a market."
One of the bigger surprises, said Cohen, was that St. Petersburg diners are a late-night crowd.
"The feedback came from locals that we needed to be open later." And so, service is now until 10 p.m. early during the week and until 11 p.m. on weekends.
FarmTable Kitchen, which technically will be the area's only James Beard award-winning chef-owned restaurant, will be overseen by executive chef Jeffrey Hileman, who was promoted to the position two months ago, just after Pintabona moved back to New York and took a less boots-on-the-ground role.
When asked about Hileman's promotion, Mina revealed another major shift in Locale's focus:
"Jeffrey has always been involved in the day-to-day operations. But when we were thinking about the role — was it going to be a chef role or a culinary director of the market? Since 60 to 70 percent of what we sell is prepared food, it's a chef's role."
Repeat: 60 to 70 percent of what Locale sells is prepared food. Grab-and-go (think swinging by to nab a package of grilled salmon with Brussels sprouts and brown rice for a quick weeknight dinner), said Cohen, was not part of the concept on day one.
"I was pushing real hard at the beginning," said Mina. "I wanted to take everything from a raw state. But one of the things we got a lot of requests for was quality, chef-driven, fully-prepared foods. So that's been our big focus."
So if the restaurant has expanded upstairs and prepared foods have expanded downstairs, something must have shrunk. Mina isn't prepared to say produce (but it's definitely produce), although he will say that "cheese and charcuterie have not done well, so we're doing a big push and moving it downstairs. That is a big focus."
There have been loads of other tweaks: The fish is all cooked to order now (not cooked in small batches and held), there is conventional produce alongside organic to provide a broader range of prices and, according to Cohen, there's a new line of take-and-bake products.
Mina allows that "low season" (June through September) saw a 20 percent drop off in sales at Locale. To put that in perspective, Locale may sell 200 cooked-to-order pastas in a day, and a busy weekend may see 1,800 to 3,000 shoppers in the store. This is big business.
Is Mina refining the concept so he can replicate it elsewhere?
"I never go into a project and say I'm going to do 20 of these. We tweak and tweak constantly, whether it's a restaurant or a market. That's what you do with something innovative."
Hileman, while previewing a number of stunning dishes, from a grouper sandwich to a pappardelle with Florida shrimp and spiny lobster in a delicate lemon butter, was less cagey.
"This is a prototype store. There have been some discussions (about other locations)," said the inventor of the wildly popular St. Petersburger with dry-aged beef. "But I've been wrong before."
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.