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Top women in Tampa's food scene share hard-earned wisdom

Mise en Place co-owner Maryann Ferenc said one secret of success was keeping customers’ favorite items on the menu, no matter how tired of making it the chef might be.
Published Nov. 5, 2013

You'd think some of the women leaders in Tampa's food scene would have resumes filled with elite culinary training and stints at far-flung, renowned restaurants.

But they don't.

Ask Maryann Ferenc, Suzanne Perry, Jeannie Pierola and Lisa Schalk where they found their inspiration and they'll talk about growing up around food or getting a wild idea.

For Ferenc, owner of Mise en Place, it was about doing her homework in a booth of her parents' restaurant and thinking every refrigerator was a walk-in. For Perry, co-owner of Datz, it was about moving to a new town and, after too much time floating in a pool, dreaming up something to do.

The women were guest speakers at a recent Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce women's series luncheon titled "La crème de la crème: How women are rising to the top of the food industry.'' To hear them tell it, owning a food business is hard work, risky but a lot of fun.

Schalk recalled not having a business plan or "a clue'' when she and her husband, Jim, started Toffee To Go as a retail operation in 2002. Today, the couple has outgrown their store and production facility on Bay to Bay Boulevard and next year plans to expand. In the meantime, Toffee To Go plans to ship up to 5,000 packages a day in December when, combined with November, the company does 85 percent of its business.

Perry said she and her husband, Roger, have learned lessons the hard way since opening Datz in 2009 along MacDill Avenue. At the top of her list? Never open a restaurant in a place that doesn't have two times the parking you think you need. And always expect to pay more for things than planned.

Out of the parking problem, however, grew the Perrys latest venture, Kalupa's bakery next door, which they renamed Dough. "I didn't want a bakery, but I needed the parking to survive at Datz,'' she said.

Pierola, owner and chef at Edison Food + Drink Lab on Kennedy Boulevard, said restaurants are benefitting from Tampa's new willingness to experiment with different dishes. People she thought would never try bone marrow are ordering it with gusto.

Pierola adjusts her menu according to what sells. She keeps track of nightly orders and looks at finished dinner plates to see what guests ate and what they pushed to the side.

"People will tell you everything you want to know and everything you don't want to know about a dish,'' she said. "Everyone is an expert on what they like.''

Often that means keeping the same item on a menu even if the chef is tired of making it, said Ferenc, outing Mise en Place's popular chocolate pecan toffee mousse.

And the culinary magic that works at a restaurant might not succeed at home for picky eaters. Despite exposing her 17-year-old to all kinds of food, Perry said he still wants food from one place: Chipotle.

BJ's Wholesale Club caught my attention with this offer of a free Thanksgiving turkey for buying five qualifying items now through Nov. 13.

But check out some of the 10 holiday-related products: eight-pack of Del Monte cut green beans; 36 frozen Pillsbury biscuits; 4 pounds of Mama's frozen cheese ravioli; 80 Jonathan T's frozen puff pastries; eight-pack of Knorr Pasta and Rice Side dishes. If you need eight cans of green beans and 80 puff pastries for your dinner, you're definitely going to need more than one, 9- to 12-pound Butterball turkey. But maybe that's the whole idea.

Coupons for the turkeys are available at area stores for members and nonmembers while supplies last. BJ's is offering a 60-day trial membership, which can be activated through Dec. 31.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

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