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Acai bowls? Ramen? They're among changes at St. Petersburg's constantly shifting Locale Market

ST. PETERSBURG

For the past several months, rumblings of an imminent restaurant recession have reverberated through the food service world. Amid the rumblings, Locale Market and its FarmTable Kitchen have just unveiled the biggest changes yet — changes that experts say fit into the direction food service is moving nationally.

Locale, constantly in a state of evolution since its December 2014 debut, has shrunk sections like produce and fresh fish to make way for new quick-serve and prepared-food stations. It has debuted a ramen station, an expanded sushi bar, a poke bowls station and a build-your-own-meal option with easy heat-and-eat items. Think roasted turkey breast with cauliflower and sweet potatoes or Faroe Island salmon and quinoa with avocado and lime vinaigrette.

At the end of July, the Sundial shopping center where Locale sits was listed for sale. Bill Edwards is the owner of the building and also a partner in the 20,000-square-foot market, a collaboration between celebrity chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona. Could this flurry of changes mean the market and restaurant are financially shaky?

David Varley, the corporate chef for the Mina Group that is behind Locale, brushed off any rumors, listing new investments like an enormous Southern Pride smoker. These changes are about "looking to sharpen the pencil," he said.

"Restaurants are having a difficult time in total," said Harry Balzer, a national expert on food and diet trends for the NPD Group, which studies food industry trends. "They are trying to change the vessel in this leaky ship. Americans just aren't going out more frequently to buy food."

Eighty percent of all meals bought at food service locations don't have a server, he said. Locale knows this.

"We've doubled down on quick serve," said Varley during a private walkthrough for the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. "Wayne Gretzky said, 'I don't skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.' "

Balzer, who spends a lot of time thinking about where the puck is going, sees it sliding toward quick serve.

"The driving force in our lives is, who is doing the cooking? And the answer to that question is, 'Not me!' We don't want to go out, we love our homes and we don't want to cook. I think we're looking for a new model for what food service will be in the future."

Locale's changes aren't all about speed and portability. A number of changes reflect a new focus on healthy foods. Yes, Locale's signature St. Petersburger is still on offer, but a new Sun and Moon Salutation Station is packed with acai bowls, chia pudding, vegan ice cream, fresh fruit juices and St. Petersburg's own Mother Kombucha Living Tea on tap. Next week, a gluten-free section of the store will be unveiled.

There is more demand for plant-based, vegan and "functional" foods, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a food service consulting firm.

"Chia is on target and anything with antioxidants are on trend."

The balance, he said, is between health and indulgence, about "broadening your base without moving too far one way or the other." He pointed to Mario Batali's market in New York, Eataly, as a success.

"What Eataly has clearly done well is to offer affluent consumers the variety they look for, so they can shop there every day and not get sick of things."

On Monday at Locale, the Flintstone-sized tomahawk steaks weren't on offer, and the liquid nitrogen ice cream had been relegated to a special event option. Still, a lot of Locale's mission is about creating an experience.

"If there's no experience," Varley said, "you're just selling stuff."

For example, new general store manager Mordechai Baron, who came from Dean & DeLuca in Charlotte, N.C., said a new "Culinary Heroes" program enables customers to buy a steak, chop or fillet of fish that Locale staff will rub, marinate or pair with an appropriate sauce.

Locale is clearly not going head-to-head with Publix. But maybe becoming more quick serve is hedging a bet. According to Balzer, supermarkets have gone through an unprecedented deflationary period for the past six months. Supermarket food is cheaper than dining out — this is known because the discrepancy has caused some folks to eat out less. Still, industry experts say the winners will be the companies that give people what they want and make it cheaper or easier.

This ease includes methods of ordering, methods of payment and delivery options. Locale is already working with delivery service Food Now and hopes to work with UberEATS, which recently debuted in Tampa.

Above all, Varley said, it's about listening to customers.

"Feedback is the breakfast of champions for us."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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