The Callaloo puts down roots at St. Petersburg's Historic Manhattan Casino

The restaurant, which replaced the failed Sylvia's Soul Food Restaurant, is gaining its footing after its first year
Published April 10

ST. PETERSBURG – Early Sunday afternoon, as a jazz trio played, a sprinkling of customers sat in the Callaloo restaurant before an expected wave of churchgoers arrived for brunch with assorted dishes including yellow plantains, biscuits and gravy, waffles, baked fish and a carving station.

The Sunday brunch and jazz led LaToya and Carmaletta Pierce to select the restaurant for their sister Keyana’s bridal shower that day. It’s also elegant, LaToya said, as she waited in a decorated private room for 20 guests to arrive.

It has been a year since the Callaloo opened in the city-owned, Historic Manhattan Casino, at 642 22nd St. S. The city spent $2.8 million to restore the two-story building that dates back to 1925 and sits in the segregation-era African-American entertainment and business district known as the Deuces.

City Council Member Amy Foster had asked for an update on the new restaurant — which replaced another that struggled and failed — its catering arm, and promise to reprise the musical and cultural traditions of the Manhattan Casino.

“We are very impressed with what they have accomplished in one year,” Alan DeLisle, city development administrator, told the council on April 4.

“Overall, everything is pretty positive,” said Ramon Hernandez, one of three Callaloo Group partners and owner of Pipo's Cuban restaurants.

The site is in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which the city is trying to boost with a series of initiatives. The Manhattan Casino’s previous tenant, Sylvia's Soul Food restaurant, was evicted in 2016 for not paying rent. The Callaloo owners, whose lease gave them six months rent-free, are current, DeLisle said.

Previous coverage: Callaloo and Pipo’s open in the Manhattan Casino, hoping to succeed where Sylvia’s failed

The ownership group, which also includes ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Mario Farias, owner of FCG, an economic development strategy firm, has adhered to most of the requirements of their lease, DeLisle said.

The lease required the development of the Manhattan Casino’s second floor as an event venue and offering live music. It’s where some of the nation's top musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald, once played and where the city's African-American community hosted debutante parties, school and fraternal events and gospel stars.

The Callaloo Group has been charged with honoring the site’s cultural legacy, a point emphasized by Council member Darden Rice.

“Part of the heart and soul of this whole project is the music and it is music that speaks to the cultural touchstone of the Manhattan Casino and what it represents to our city’s history during the time of segregation,” she said.

“To me, part of the beauty of this project was the music first and the restaurant second.’’ she said. “It is about bringing that vibe back to that community.”

DeLisle said the group understands and is committed to the Manhattan Casino’s legacy.

"We have been forging at building our own brand, because it is a unique building as a destination, so we have had to be creative," Farias told the Tampa Bay Times. ‘‘We are very excited about the progress we have made."So far, the Callaloo Group has not been able to meet the city's requirement that it pay a percentage rent over gross annual sales of $1.9 million. Sales have not met that threshold. Additionally, the group has not employed 25 people as required. It has 16 employees, seven of whom are from the South St. Petersburg CRA, a percentage, DeLisle pointed out, that exceeds what had been required for 25 jobs. The partners also had a setback in their apprenticeship program designed to give ownership opportunities to employees. “Two prospects in training for future ownership stakes were dismissed for improper behavior,” their report to the city said.

“They have five years to accomplish that,” DeLisle told the council.

It’s a condition Council Member Steve Kornell expects to be fulfilled. “In five years, I don’t want to hear any reason why that agreement was not honored and lived up to,” he said.

“I hope one day that you will have the opportunity to pay percentage rent,” Council Chair Charlie Gerdes told the partners, adding, that he would like to see any money the city receives used to help the apprenticeship program.

Foster said she realizes that the city aims for “big, bold goals” with leases such as the one with the Callaloo Group and other projects designed to invigorate the South St. Petersburg CRA.

“For me, one of the things that we are struggling with at times is figuring out what the right formula is to make the goals not be just aspirational," she said. "I think we’re all hungry for something to happen.”

Previous coverage: St. Petersburg council okays restaurant deal for Manhattan Casino

Jackson admitted that the project has not been without challenges.

“We don’t have the foot traffic where we are located. We are not on Central. We are not in the Edge District,” he said. “We do our best to understand where we sit. We understand that St. Petersburg needs a great event space. We are still a young company...but give us a little time and I think you will be pleased.”

Farias said the Canterbury School of Florida and Gibbs High School will both hold their proms at the historic location. The Lakewood High School Jazz Ensemble held a fundraiser there last year for their trip to New York City to play at the Apollo Theater. The space was offered free, Farias said.

“We have lots of events booked over the course of the next year,” he said, adding that a group based in Denver that honors entertainment legends has booked the Manhattan Casino for four days. About 250 people from across the the country are expected.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin described businesses like the Callaloo Group that have invested in CRA as pioneers.

“They have invested absolutely in the aspiration," she said. "They are there because they believe in our vision.”

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.