ST. PETERSBURG — When members of the Callaloo Group decided to open a food hall inside St. Petersburg’s Historic Manhattan Casino, they knew they had their work cut out for them.
For one, they’d operated a different restaurant in the city-owned space before — one that didn’t quite take off as planned. Food halls are popular, but what would make theirs stand apart from others? And how could they honor the building’s legacy while fostering economic development and supporting the surrounding community?
With 22 South Food Hall, which opens April 30, they hope to have the answer.
Part-restaurant, part-incubator for culinary startups, the multi-use building will function as a food hall, co-working space, cocktail lounge, coffee shop and event venue. To start, the restaurant will feature seven restaurants from chefs and food entrepreneurs from the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, many who have already built a name for themselves with food trucks and catering operations. The partnering incubator program will fuel a future generation of vendors.
The hope is that the food hall will be able to support and sustain itself while providing a welcoming place where the community can gather over food, drink and music.
“For profit, but with a mission,” said Mario Farias, the Callaloo Group’s managing partner. “There had to be a social value, not just a commercial one,” he said.
A historic venue
The music venue and dance hall, which anchors the 22nd Street S corridor known as the Deuces, first opened in 1925 as the Jordan Dance Hall. Named for the hall’s founder, the freed enslaved person and trailblazing businessman Elder Jordan Sr., the hall was a popular stomping ground for famous Black musicians. Jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington played there.
In 2005, the city of St. Petersburg spent $2.8 million to restore the building, and the space has been home to a few different food concepts since, including Sylvia’s Soul Food, which closed in 2016. The Callaloo Group took over in 2017 after being awarded a five-year lease but closed their eponymous restaurant in the space last year after struggling to meet revenue targets.
For their latest venture, the group partnered with Rising Tide Innovation Center — a local co-working and incubator company. Rising Tide co-founder Leigh Fletcher said the hall’s central mission is to help up-and-coming restaurant and food startups build a name while gaining valuable business skills before they are eventually ready to move on and open their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. But the partners also hope to breathe life into a historic space while helping to revitalize and bring additional commerce to the area — once a bustling economic hub for the city’s Black community.
A key member and driving force behind the project was former Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson, who died earlier this year. As a primary investor in the food hall, Farias says Jackson’s vision for the project has stayed intact, and the hall’s anchor concept — a New American restaurant called VJ’s — is a tribute to their late partner.
The restaurant inside has undergone significant design changes. Outside on the sidewalk, tables overlooking 22nd Street S will seat roughly 40 people. The dining room, outfitted with dark, hardwood floors and light, modern accents, features a collection of tables, a private dining room and a long chef’s table overlooking the semi-open kitchen. A sangria bar greets guests as they enter, and in the adjacent bar, a set of high-top communal tables will act as a co-working space and cafe during the daytime. A lounge will feature live music on weekend nights.
In the property’s adjoining building, an upstairs event space — the Jordan Ballroom — fits 300 people and can be rented for weddings, concerts and other large events.
A food hall with a different approach
While planning 22 South, the group visited and researched a number of different food halls across the country. They noticed that many had a hard time hanging on to vendors, and faced a constantly revolving door of vacant spaces. From an operations standpoint, the group didn’t like the halls where guests would order from each stall separately, or the few where a communal ordering system still meant getting food from different restaurants delivered at different times.
What the group wanted was a food hall with multiple vendors that still had the look and feel of a regular restaurant. They came up with a unique and ambitious operations model that hinges on a communal kitchen where the majority of overhead, operations and staffing costs for the restaurant are covered.
Each restaurant operates from a separate workstation inside the 2,800-square-foot commissary kitchen. Though the stations are right next to each other, the work spaces don’t overlap. The chefs share communal storage spaces, including freezers and some prep stations and pastry mixers.
Each restaurant will have one to two employees working their station, no more. Everyone else — from the front-of-the-house staff like servers, bartenders and hosts to back-of-the-house employees like dishwashers and expediters — are all employed by the Callaloo Group.
For diners, the experience largely mimics that of a regular restaurant: Guests are greeted at the door, seated at a table and given a menu where they can order from any one of the restaurants — from sushi to barbecue to vegan soul food. A server puts in the order and an expediter translates and times the dishes for each of the chefs involved, so that each dish arrives at the same time as the others ordered on the ticket.
“Ultimately, it all starts and ends with the expediter,” Farias said. “He’s like the conductor of an orchestra.”
Other food halls have struggled when it came to negotiating rental agreements with their vendors. Farias and Fletcher said that was something they wanted to avoid, and that membership shouldn’t be so burdensome that it would negate the benefits of joining. To start, the participating restaurants’ rent will be calculated on a sliding scale — roughly 25 to 30 percent of their total revenue. (For their part, the Callaloo Group pays the city $40,000 in annual rent, plus a percentage of revenue once sales hit $1.9 million.)
The food hall itself most likely won’t be profitable on its own, Farias said, but the hope is that the majority of the funds to fuel enterprise will come from other revenue streams, including the cafe, bar, ballroom catering and events business.
The incubator program will focus on two types of entrepreneurs: aspiring restaurateurs and those interested in creating their own food products. Farias said the program’s length will vary based on an individual’s experience in the field, but estimated it could take anywhere from six months to a year to graduate. Participants will work on building a business plan and learn everything from menu design to product merchandising.
To get 22 South in shape for opening, the selected chefs and restaurants at the food hall all have a good deal of restaurant experience already under their belts. When the incoming incubator class is ready to move into the food hall, the hope is that some of the current vendors will be ready to depart and open their own standalone restaurants.
“It’s our job to prepare them, but we definitely don’t want to rush them out the door,” Farias said. “They all have different needs.”
VJ’s, the food hall’s anchor concept dedicated to Jackson, is led by executive chef John Karasiewicz and the only restaurant that will stay a constant, while the other vendors rotate out.
The hall’s other restaurants were chosen partially through word-of-mouth and an online application process. Farias and Fletcher met Melissa Grannum and Dean Hudson while the pair were operating food stand Irie Mon Jamaican Grill at the South St. Pete Marketplace, a weekly community farmers market that’s held on Tuesdays in the lot outside the Manhattan Casino.
“He’s been cooking since he was little,” Grannum, 37, said of her partner, Hudson, 44. “It’s was a great opportunity for us to kind of transition. We’re super excited,” she said.
Brothers William and Bryan Graveley, who are running the hall’s barbecue concept, Betterway BBQ, said they’ve been in talks with Farias for several years and see the food hall as an opportunity to expand upon their 20-plus years in the catering business. The brothers, who grew up in St. Petersburg, have both been actively involved in business ventures along the historic Deuces corridor in the past. Bryan Graveley was the pitmaster at nearby (and since-shuttered) Deuces BBQ, and their other brother once ran a crab shop on 22nd Street S.
“This was an opportunity for us to get in on the ground floor,” said William Gravely, 62. “I’m excited, also, because it’s part of the revitalization of that area. We hope to do well for the community.”
Ultimately, the mission at 22 South is to have the vendors leave to open their own restaurants, making room for the next incubator class.
“When they’re ready to leave and open their own restaurants, that’s when we’ll know we’ve done our job,” Fletcher said.
If you go
22 South Food Hall, at the Historic Manhattan Casino, opens April 30 at 642 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg. Hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.