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Rundown St. Petersburg motel to become cutting edge collection of local restaurants

Jonathan Daou is remaking the Monticello on Fourth Street N into a “food motel.”
Published Oct. 22, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — What do you get if you cross St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market with a food court and a 1952 motel? Crescent Lake Market, a new venture in the old Monticello Motel at 1700 Fourth St. N that puts Tampa Bay on the cusp of a new dining trend.

Independent food vendors and chefs will create and sell dine-in and takeout meals from the 18 motel rooms. Customers will sit at a communal dining area between the two rows of rooms in a covered courtyard lit with Thomas Edison-inspired antique light bulbs, the latest in hip decor that combines nostalgia with industrial chic.

The market's concept and look mirrors so-called "food halls" opening in cities such as New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago.

New York real estate investor Jonathan Daou paid $825,000 for the bedraggled motel in December and hopes to open the market, which backs up to Crescent Lake, by February.

"It will be very flexible," he said. "Some (vendors) may be there all the time, and some may be there for three months or less. The selection will be changing constantly."

When stone crabs are in season, he'll have someone selling the fresh crustaceans every day. Another entrepreneur making fresh tacos or sushi may take over the space when crabs go out of season. A space may house someone making gourmet ice pops May through October, then a soup cafe November to April.

The first vendor he's disclosing is Karma Juice Bar & Eatery, which has a store at 209 First St. NE and is known for its addictive acai bowls. Daou, who has invested more than $9 million in at least 10 commercial properties in Pinellas County in the past 20 months, thinks St. Petersburg is ready to embrace a concept popular in bigger cities.

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is opening a food market in an empty pier building on the edge of New York's Meatpacking District that promises 100 international restaurants and fresh food vendors. Gotham West Market houses 10 artisan vendors in New York's Hell's Kitchen. In Atlanta, Central Food Hall opened last summer in a historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. building. In September, the Mercantile and Mash opened in a former cigar factory in Charleston, S.C. And there's St. Roch Market in New Orleans and the Marketplace at the National (a 1912 bank building) in Chicago.

"This is a great use for old buildings instead of tearing them down and putting up chain stores," said Daou, who owns several buildings in New York that host pop-up fashion shows, art exhibits, preview events and restaurants. He wants to market his new "food motel" concept to other developers to try at empty or rundown mom-and-pop motels around the country.

"We're staring to see more of these as developers look at the success of different concepts. You've seen the food truck phenomenon, the green market phenomenon," said Melissa Wilson, principal with Technomic, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm specializing in food service. "I think it's a tremendous opportunity for somebody who's a chef or sous chef who always wanted to open their own place. This gives them the opportunity to test the waters without incurring big, long-term expenses."

The Saturday Morning Market's strong and steady fan base inspired Daou to create the Crescent Lake Market. Vendors are limited to a tent, ingredients they bring in and out each time and a mobile cooking source, he pointed out. "Think what they could do in an actual building," he said.

Each room at the Monticello is 250 square feet. Some vendors, such as Karma, will occupy two. Others may share one space, splitting up morning and evening hours. The Monticello's two-story lobby and restaurant with the tall columns has been razed to make room for the communal dining area. About 5,000 square feet remain to house food vendors.

"I think that it's just what we need," said Todd Murian, owner of Bob Lee's Tire Co., directly across the street. "It allows a person who probably could never afford to be on Fourth Street to be on Fourth Street and peddle their product."

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.

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