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  1. Florida

Is Lakeland Florida’s next hip food city? It sure seems like it

The city between Tampa and Orlando is in the middle of a culinary boom, thanks to a group of entrepreneurs.

Something is happening in Lakeland, and it seems to be happening all at once.

The city halfway between Tampa and Orlando is in the middle of a food entrepreneur boom, buoyed by the plucky spirit of a younger population striving to invigorate the hometown they never thought they’d come back to.

At the center of a lot of this change is Catapult Lakeland, a coworking space that has fostered many of Lakeland’s culinary up-and-comers. In January, Catapult is moving into a new space right on downtown’s Lake Mirror, where it will expand its entrepreneur program and debut a much larger space and flashier kitchen.

Benjamin Vickers of Honeycomb Bread Bakers works in the Catapult kitchen. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

It’s one of many notable openings coming in the next six months. This fall, a food hall called the Joinery will open next to the Catapult building; gathering spot the Yard on Mass will debut brews and a rotating collection of food trucks in November; and artisanal bakery Honeycomb Bread Bakers is hoping to open its first brick-and-mortar in August or September.

Each of these brings a new concept to Lakeland, and new verve to the historically sleepy city. They’re joining established businesses like the Poor Porker, which Lakelanders flock to on the weekend for fresh beignets, and Jenn Smurr’s Born and Bread Bakehouse, a leader in this city’s culinary scene featured in national publications like Food and Wine and USA Today.

There’s also Concord Coffee in Lakeland’s Dixieland district, a craft coffee spot opened in 2015 that roasts its own beans nearby. They serve killer snacks from Cob & Pen down the street, a restaurant and beer bar that is set to open a new Lakeland concept soon: a bar and arcade called the Rec Room.

Maggie Leach, who has worked as Catapult’s kitchen director since 2018, offered to take me on an unofficial tour of Lakeland’s eclectic, highly interconnected food and drink scene.

Catapult Lakeland

The current offices of Catapult Lakeland. The company is moving to a much larger space soon. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

I meet Leach at Catapult’s current headquarters, a charming basement space a couple of blocks from downtown Lakeland’s main street. It’s quaint, 10,000 square feet total with a 400-square-foot kitchen.

We walk through the space and spot one of the entrepreneurs we’ll meet later, Benjamin Vickers, who has developed his forthcoming Honeycomb Bread Bakers out of Catapult. He waves at us through the tiny kitchen’s glass window.

Right away, I get the sense that Lakeland’s general quaintness has allowed entrepreneurs like Vickers to thrive. And Catapult has helped usher in this new wave.

The nonprofit that’s funded by the Lakeland Economic Development Council provides a path for potential food purveyors and chefs by allowing them to rent kitchen space for a very low rate and use the coworking space to work through business plans.

“We always wanted to be hyper Lakeland focused,” Leach says. “And the goal from the beginning was to build up entrepreneurs. It’s easier for people to slowly test their product or food business here without risking their life savings.”

More than a dozen businesses currently operate out of their kitchen; in total they’ve worked with about 35 to 40 entrepreneurs since they opened in 2013. The community is tight-knit and supportive. Entrepreneurs who move through here stay close, like the trio of former Catapulters that make up the Kitchen Collective commercial kitchen: Brooke Ernst of Stuffed, Darla Markley of No Guilt Baked Company and Jamie Fagan of Cravory Cakes & Convections.

The new Catapult space, dubbed “Catapult 3.0,” will be a boon for the city, huge compared to the digs they’re currently in: two stories, 38,000 square feet, with event space for 200 people and “maker space” with a wood shop, a metal shop and an area where entrepreneurs can sell their goods. That’s in addition to the upgraded kitchen space, which will be 5,000 square feet and include things like a double-stack convection oven, a walk-in cooler and freezer and potentially a certified organic room.

“There’s a lot of momentum in Lakeland right now,” Leach says.

Cafe Zuppina

The veggie platter at Cafe Zuppina in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Leach takes me to one of her favorite spots for lunch, Cafe Zuppina, which is not a newcomer but rather a 10-year-old restaurant barely larger than a living room that has gained a devoted following.

We meet Berna Nar, who runs the place with her husband, Erkan. She has been a mentor to other food businesses in the community, and to Catapult.

“I appreciate that Catapult and Lakeland is supporting me,” Berna says. “It’s a small community. And I cook with the love they give me.”

Berna Nar works in the kitchen at her restaurant, Cafe Zuppina, in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

The Nars, who are from Turkey, do their own shopping for the restaurant, planning trips to the nearest Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to find staples on their focused menu, things like celery root and Brussels sprouts and leeks.

They’ve been loading up on vegetables for 10 years, Berna says, before vegetables were trendy.

We order the spicy seafood soup special; Berna also brings us a lemony, brothy soup she simply calls “healing soup.” Simple and homey and deeply comforting, it tastes like a bowl straight from your grandma’s kitchen.

"Healing" soup made with chicken orzo with lemon. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

“Food has to touch your heart when you’re eating it,” she says.

The menu changes with the seasons, but the standout is a vegetable plate entree that comes packed with hummus, pita, spanakopita, carrot slaw, cauliflower, Brussels and much more.

“Lots of restaurants only give you broccoli,” Berna says. “Not here.”

By the time we leave around 1 p.m., every seat is taken.

Black and Brew

Chris McArthur, co-owner of Black and Brew, at its Lakeland Public Library location. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

For years, every time I met up with someone in Lakeland, I took them to Black and Brew. The flagship location felt like one of the only reliable daytime hangouts in Lakeland’s downtown core.

Part coffee shop, part fast-service restaurant, Black and Brew has been here since 2006. Brothers Chris McArthur and Michael McArthur renovated a 100-year-old building on Main Street, the goal simple at the start: “We just wanted a place we could hang,” Chris says. “The food came later; it was an evolution. There was a surging working population coming downtown.”

In 2018, a second Black and Brew opened inside the Lakeland Public Library, right off Lake Morton. There’s less food, but the same playful coffee and tea menu and craft sodas made in-house.

A Cow Named Moo's Bing cherry ice cream sandwiched between lavender cookies at Black and Brew coffee shop at the Lakeland Public Library in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Leach orders a couple of ice cream sandwiches for us, Bing cherry ice cream between lavender cookies, which Black and Brew gets from Lakeland company A Cow Named Moo. They make handcrafted ice cream sandwiches in small batches using locally sourced ingredients.

“We were working within the constraints of the local palate when we started,” Chris says. “But we have always wanted to help people here be more adventurous.”

Another recent venture for the Black and Brew co-owner: locally roasted coffee beans.

Chris started Patriot Coffee Roasters in 2015, beginning the way most Lakeland entrepreneurs do: He sold his goods from a hand-built cart at the Lakeland Downtown Market, which runs seasonally on Saturdays along Kentucky Avenue. He raised money through Kickstarter to open a commercial roasting facility in Lakeland’s Dixieland district in 2016.

Chris worked with Catapult while he was getting his coffee business off the ground.

“I was happy to be part of a community where I could leverage the talents of other people,” he says. “Collaboration has been an important part of paying it forward.”

Black and Brew coffee shop at the Lakeland Public Library in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Black and Brew and a couple of other Lakeland businesses use Patriot beans — and you can buy them at Publix. Patriot’s whole bean blends are part of the Lakeland-based grocery store’s Florida Local program, which sells products from Florida entrepreneurs.

“I’m a native Lakelander, so I’m highly invested in seeing our city continue to grow,” Chris says.

Anything in particular he’d like to see?

“We just need more. More independents that are quality minded and executed well,” he says. “I’m optimistic, even with places that don’t make it. It’s going to keep getting better.”

The Joinery

John and Sarah Buckley (left) with Catapult kitchen director, Maggie Leach (center) look over plans for The Joinery, a food hall space coming to Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Of all the projects opening in Lakeland in the next six months, this may be the biggest. Literally.

Currently in construction in the space where the Old Lakeland Brewing Co. used to be, the Joinery is going to be Lakeland’s first food hall. With seven vendors and an on-site brewery, the spot off Lake Mirror is one of the most ambitious food projects to hit the city.

Jon and Sarah Bucklew are behind the hall, a husband and wife team who started furniture company Seventeen20 in Lakeland in 2011. Jon used to be a touring musician; Sarah used to travel five days a week for work. They decided at some point that they wanted to bring some of the cool culinary vibes they encountered on their travels back to their hometown.

“We were drawn to our city of Lakeland. And we felt like it could be the Austin, Texas, of Florida,” Sarah says.

John and Sarah Buckley at the future site of The Joinery, a food hall space they are opening in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

We walk around the space, still very much a construction zone, but the bones are there. Jon and Sarah point out where each of the vendors will go. Some of them will be in shipping containers they are building into the structure of the space. There will be a bar, and a dog park next door. Total seating? Including the indoor and outdoor spaces, 300.

“We do sometimes wonder, what were we thinking?” Sarah says.

The space will house food and drink vendors, a flower boutique and a spot for other retail.

“There’s been a real undercurrent of an entrepreneur vibe in this city,” Jon says. “But there was no real way for them to come to light. With Catapult and other businesses around town, we’ve seen a massive change with small businesses and young artisans.”

“There’s a real focus and passion on quality,” Sarah says.

As we pass beer brewing tanks (they figured they may as well keep the ones from Old Lakeland Brewing Co.), Sarah talks about how they’re trying to create a very certain feel for the space. She references a modern industrial design style. It all feels very trendy, very big city, very much not like something this city has seen before.

They talk about the momentum in Lakeland right now, and the “symbiotic” nature of the culinary scene.

“We’re trying to build the framework,” Sarah says. “We’re the frame around the art. That hasn’t really been done in this way in this community.”

They hope to open this fall. Or, as Jon says, “as soon as we can.”

Yard on Mass

Jenn Batts and Craig Morby of The Yard on Mass look over plans for their future food space. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Aiming for a November opening is the Yard on Mass, a family-friendly gathering space that will house a food truck park and a bar.

At the corner of E Parker Street and N Massachusetts Avenue on what used to be a car lot, Craig Morby and Jenn Batts will offer a rotating collection of food trucks. It’s modeled after the Rayback in Boulder, Colo., a beer garden with mountain views and rotating food vendors, which Batts’ family owns.

In her office, Batts shows us pictures of her family at the Rayback and talks about why she wanted to bring that concept to Lakeland.

“We want to create a real backyard party vibe,” she says. “Somewhere families can go.”

One of the food trucks on site will be what they’re calling an incubator truck — a permanent on-site space where local food entrepreneurs can come and try running a food truck for a day, see if it’s something they really want to do before investing in their own truck.

“These entrepreneurs here, they are our anchor in a lot of ways,” Morby says.

“For them, it’s a good way to move beyond markets,” Batts adds.

To pair with the snacks will be a bar that focuses on craft brews and a couple of cocktails.

“We’ll have the full liquor license, and we’ll pour some craft cocktails from kegs,” Batts says. “But we want this to be very family-friendly. No one is doing tequila shots. Everybody is welcome.”

Honeycomb Bread Bakers

Benjamin Vickers of Honeycomb Bread Bakers at his future bakery space in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Next, Leach and I venture over to Kentucky Avenue, where Lakeland’s farmers market takes place. Just off that main street is the future home of Honeycomb Bread Bakers, the first brick-and-mortar for Benjamin Vickers, who has been selling fresh foccacia and baguettes and sourdough bread at markets since 2018.

“I’ve had the concept of Honeycomb since I was this big,” Vickers says, holding his hand not that far off the ground. “Lots of our market customers are people who haven’t had this stuff in forever, or people my age who grew up on Wonderbread and Nature’s Own.”

The 27-year-old grew up in Lakeland but went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., from 2013 to 2015. One of his externships was in New York City, at Dominique Ansel Bakery, famed for creating the cronut.

“Yes, I was there when they did the cronut,” Vickers says.

Currently, Vickers makes his products out of Catapult’s kitchen, arriving at midnight to start baking.

“It’s the baker’s life,” he says. “I get to live in this mythological zone of getting to do something I actually want to do. When you’re covered in sugar and flour and chocolate, it’s hard to be in a bad mood.”

In the Honeycomb space, they’re starting with what he’s calling a continental breakfast, things like fresh bagels and yogurt and oatmeal bowls. A “bistro lunch” will follow.

He’s leaning into the unique space, which has a little loft up a set of stairs, lots of wood paneling, a small side alley. He envisions a culinary library full of cookbooks, live music, tea service and a retail space stocked with goods from his collaborator Jenna O’Brien, who runs the creative business Twenty Seven. (Look for the colorful Lakeland mural she painted at the Shop Across the Street off Florida Avenue S.)

“We want to use this space to highlight the unsung heroes of our community,” Vickers says. “The idea that we as entrepreneurs are playing a zero-sum game is so dead.”

Vickers did not think he’d ever make his way back to Lakeland.

“I was one of those kids who swore I’d never return,” he says. “But there’s actually people who care about quality now, and things have changed. Plus, I’m a mama’s boy. I could never leave my family and friends.”

Born and Bread Bakehouse

Jenn Smurr of Born and Bread Bakehouse in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

We end the day at Born and Bread Bakehouse, at this point probably one of Lakeland’s best-known homegrown businesses. The bakery, which is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays, spends all week crafting breads and a wide variety of pastries.

Jenn Smurr started in the tiny Catapult kitchen back in March 2015, sold at Lakeland’s farmers market until late 2017, then opened up her current space in the Dixieland district. She knocked down a wall shortly after moving in so she could double the space; now there’s a commercial kitchen on one side and a space for guests on the other.

Born and Bread Bakehouse in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times

“It used to be super intimate in here,” she says. “For customers in those days, it made them feel like they were part of this ever growing journey.”

As we chat, there is a flurry of activity behind her, the team prepping and baking and mixing to prepare for the time they open their doors.

Lakelanders line up on the hot sidewalk on Saturday mornings to get their hands on loaves of bread.

Ciabatta bread is prepared at Born and Bread Bakehouse in Lakeland. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

“What we’re doing isn’t revolutionary, but for Polk County it is,” Smurr says. “It’s an amazing community, and an incredible product. We hear from people all the time that it’s still not enough.”

Smurr says it has been fun to watch Lakeland evolve, to watch folks come in and try to change the small-town mind-set. She has noticed that her customers are desperate for quality.

“It’s about that sense of community, getting people to stay here instead of going to the hip new spot in Tampa,” she said. “It’s almost like, if we build it, they will come.”