ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.
St. Petersburg's Mayor Kriseman took a trip down to Sanibel Island to visit Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille, a sprawling good-times restaurant named for the central character in a number of Randy Wayne White's novels. Butter, garlic, cilantro and mild Colombian chilies — Kriseman was grooving on the shrimp. And what's more, he liked the folks behind Doc Ford's.
Wednesday morning at the ground-breaking ceremony for the $66 million St. Petersburg Pier project, there they were: Randy Wayne White and restaurant partners Mark Marinello, Marty Harrity and Mark Futch (who had flown them all up in his seaplane). Nothing is official, but the large anchor restaurant in the new Pier project is likely to be Doc Ford's, Wayne White's fourth restaurant location. If it is approved, it will likely be the largest restaurant in St. Petersburg, with upwards of 450 seats in an indoor-outdoor setting.
In an already dense restaurant environment, the prospect of another 450 seats, especially backed by a nationally known author, may make downtown restaurateurs a little skittish. At what point is St. Pete saturated with places to eat and drink?
"The study that we did indicated that we could have even more restaurants out there than the ones we're talking about," Kriseman said. "This restaurant will be different from anything that we have in the downtown core area."
For the novelist-turned-restaurateur, this project is about his affection for St. Petersburg.
"Over the past two years, we've met and enjoyed time with city of St. Pete officials," White said by phone after disembarking the seaplane back on Sanibel. "I adore St. Pete. In the past two years it's become so vibrant. At the risk of being impolitic, people in St. Pete seem to be healthier and younger and better looking and having more fun."
A lot has to happen before Doc Ford's is a reality.
Colliers International is the operator of the Pier project. In the next several weeks, according to Kriseman's spokesman Ben Kirby, Colliers will compile a list of potential restaurants for the Pier and the Pier approach. That vetted list will be reviewed by the mayor, who will make a decision on eateries he'd like to see, and then present it to the city council for approval. Kirby anticipates the list of restaurants would be presented to the mayor in early fall.
For White's part, Doc Ford's and St. Pete are a good fit more ideologically.
"Doc Ford's message or theme is more than the books," he said. "It has to do with an outdoor environmental experience, fish and water, it's about being in the moment and perceiving. I'm very pleased they're rebuilding the pier. But whether this works out is entirely up to the powers that be."
If the project is approved, White and partners hope to debut the restaurant concurrently with the opening of the pier, expected in early 2019.
After the ceremonial groundbreaking, it was time for a little fun. The novelist invited the mayor and deputy mayor for a quick seaplane run.
"The flight was totally spontaneous," White said. "Mayor Kriseman showed incredible spunk, rolling up his pants to wade to the plane. And I loved that Deputy Mayor (Kanika) Tomalin was already barefoot, ready to go."
A bird's eye view may have been precisely what this group needed to refine a vision of the much-contested Pier project.
"It gives you a view of our downtown waterfront that's very different and shows just how spectacular it is," said Kriseman of his second-ever seaplane ride. "To know that we're adding to the parks and reconnecting with the waterfront makes me even more excited about this project."
Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report. Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.