LAND O'LAKES — With a carving knife and a commercial kitchen spoon, Steve Stallone perfects his craft, which probably could be the highlight of almost any party: a watermelon keg.
Stallone and his wife, Chelsea, both 27, co-own a business called Wikid Watermelon.
Stallone started his culinary career at a couple of chain restaurants, Red Lobster and Cody's Original Roadhouse, in 2003, when he lived in Spring Hill. He later worked at Salishan, a retirement community in Hernando County, where colleagues noticed his knack for decorating buffets with fruit.
He taught himself to carve fruit while he worked as a cook at the Wyndham Westshore Hotel in Tampa, a job he held while he studied in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Tampa.
He honed his skill carving watermelons when a previous employer paid him to do it at events around the country. His colleagues called him "the watermelon guy."
So in April, Stallone, who now works full time as a chef and director of dining services at Brookdale, a retirement community in Tampa, turned his skill into Wikid Watermelon.
"We were trying to think of different ways we could make extra money on the side because I stay home with the kids," Chelsea Stallone said.
Steve can carve watermelons the traditional way, turning the fruit into party decor. They "look cool," he admits, "but there's not much you can do with them," aside from eat them after the event.
So, he taught himself to turn watermelons into kegs.
On the Internet, he had seen other people's attempts to create watermelon kegs — failed attempts, he said. So, he decided to figure out how to make it work.
First, he hollows out a watermelon. Chelsea then juices the fruit and mixes it with fresh lime juice, fresh mint and cane sugar. She bottles the beverage, called the Wikid Watermelon "Nojito" Mixer, which customers can put inside the keg with ice — with or without alcohol.
"We suggest nonalcoholic because that's how we sell it," Chelsea said. But "we know adults are going to add their own liquors."
The Stallones also sell the mix as ice pops at farmers markets and hope to eventually sell the ice pops in grocery stores.
Customers can pour the liquid into the melon through the lid that Steve cuts into the top of it. He also installs a tap and carves images or words of the customer's choice into the front of the hollow fruit. It takes him about an hour from start to finish, depending on the design.
Chelsea — often with the couple's children, Aiden, 4, and Evan, 3 — delivers the finished products to customers, who have ordered the carvings and kegs for festivals and fairs, wedding receptions, birthday parties, graduation celebrations and holidays.
Customer John Leaver of Land O'Lakes ordered a watermelon keg for a recent backyard barbecue. Every other Sunday, he and a handful of friends host potluck pool parties for their families.
"I'm not a gourmet chef, and I'm single," Leaver said, so preparing a dish for the potluck is always his job.
He heard about Wikid Watermelon and decided to bring a keg instead of a dish to the party.
"It was a huge hit," he said. "I kept it kid-friendly, unspiked. Everybody loved it."
David Moyer, president of the nonprofit organization 13 Ugly Men, which throws parties to benefit charities, ordered two kegs and 15 gallons of the Nojito mix for Red, White and Brew, a Fourth of July party at Ferg's Live at Channelside in Tampa.
"We had beer tents," Moyer said, but "I think more people came up to the watermelon."
The fruit "sells like crazy" in the summer, Steve Stallone said. Fourth of July weekend proved it.
"We turned down 12 people," he said. "I couldn't carve fast enough."
He hopes the watermelons are sought as frequently by customers in the fall and winter. But in case they aren't, Stallone has a plan: turning pumpkins into kegs.
"We're not going to fill them with watermelon juice," he said.
He's picked a seasonal favorite for fall — apple cider.
Contact Arleen Spenceley at (727) 869-6235 or email@example.com. Follow @ArleenSpenceley.