TAMPA — Willa’s, a new restaurant now open in Tampa’s North Hyde Park, wants to change the game.
With a focus on community, the new neighborhood spot from owners Nate Siegel and Merrin Jenkins opened last week on the corner of West Fig Street and North Rome Avenue.
The goal? To create a welcoming, family-friendly gathering place for the neighborhood. But also: to offer the most supportive working atmosphere for their employees. Here, the staff — not the customer — comes first.
“That is going to be our competitive edge in Tampa,” Jenkins said. “We’re going to be the best place to work.”
It’s an ambitious venture and the first joint project for Siegel and Jenkins, who say they have plans to open more restaurants in the future. For now, their focus is Willa’s and what will soon be Willa’s Provisions, a 12-seat cafe with baked goods, King State coffee and grab-and-go items like sandwiches, pastries, breakfast tacos and pantry staples.
Calling themselves “a neighborhood restaurant that loves its people,” the spot is named for Jenkins’ great-, great-grandmother and 19th century Tampa pioneer William “Willie” Lowry.
Both Tampa natives, Siegel and Jenkins worked in New York City, but met through a mutual friend back home. Siegel, who was coming off a decade in the New York restaurant industry, was eyeing the Tampa landscape with designs on opening a place of his own. Jenkins, whose background is in fundraising, higher education and development, was looking to do something new and closer to home. The two decided to go into business together.
It helped that the pair had similar visions for what they wanted their first restaurant to be. They drew inspiration from New York all-day dining institutions like Balthazar and Pastis, but also from cozy neighborhood bistros like Joseph Leonard and Jack’s Wife Freda.
“It’s the type of food you can eat every single day,” Jenkins said. “An always welcome, all-day mentality that we love and want to emulate.”
It took a few years for their plans to come to fruition. They started construction on the 4,700-square-foot industrial building in September 2019, but encountered the usual setbacks from permitting issues to construction holdups and then, the pandemic.
On March 12, the restaurant portion of Willa’s opened inside the renovated warehouse space (the neighboring Willa’s Provisions will open next month).
Leading the kitchen is Zakari Davila, another Tampa native with New York City culinary chops. The menu’s New American theme includes some French and international influences and is anchored in approachable dishes with a selection of vegetable-forward sides (roughly 70 percent of the menu is either vegan or vegetarian).
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The restaurant’s signature rotisserie-roasted chicken ($18) features a slow-roasted half chicken topped with salsa verde. Other entrees include a miso Ora King Salmon ($26) served with haricot verts, lemon and sesame; and a panko-crusted pork schnitzel ($22), seasoned with porchetta spices and served with lemon and dressed greens.
Starters and shared plates include a whipped ricotta sourdough toast with Florida honey and roasted hazelnuts ($11); cornmeal-crusted Cedar Key oysters served with remoulade ($13); and a hand-chopped sirloin beef tartare ($15), made with cornichons, shallots and dijonnaise.
Helming the beverage program is Ronnie Wyche Jr., who previously worked at Tampa’s Rooster & The Till and Mise en Place. The restaurant’s cocktail menu features several alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks served on tap, including a strawberry Aperol spritz ($12) and the Willa’s Fix ($10), made with Zodiac vodka, Cocchi Americano, elderberry syrup and hibiscus. The wine list features roughly 50 rotating bottles and is heavily focused on small producers with an emphasis on natural wines.
As for that friendly work environment the owners speak of? Their initial approach was maybe a little too ambitious: They floated the idea of including a 20 percent service charge on all checks but ended up scrapping that, after witnessing similar programs fail in other states.
“There have been so many issues and challenges to guests this year, we didn’t want to hit them with something else,” Siegel said.
Instead, they landed on this: ideally, every staff member will make at least $15 an hour, regardless of their base pay (kitchen staff starts at $12 an hour, but are tipped out by front-of-the-house employees to supplement their pay). The restaurant operates as a pool house, meaning tips are pooled and allocated accordingly, based on number of hours worked. And the staff share responsibilities —from helping to clear tables, run food, and take orders, among other duties. It’s a model that’s been met with considerable success at restaurants in other cities, including New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.
The owners are also in the process of setting up a profit sharing program where five percent of the restaurant’s profits every quarter will be set aside for things like an employee fund or pooled for a bonus program that could be divided among the staff (they’re still working out the details).
For now, both Jenkins and Siegel say it’s a work in progress, and that they will adjust their policies as needed based on the feedback they get from their employees.
“I wanted to come back to Tampa and contribute something to our hometown,” Jenkins said. “From day one, I knew that Nate and I would be great partners because we really value culture. This is what we want to be doing together for the next 30 years.”
During the pandemic, Willa’s is operating at 70 percent of their capacity and open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. In the coming weeks, the restaurant will add daily service, brunch, take-out and curbside pick-up.
1700 W Fig St., Tampa. 813-519-4552. willastampa.com