ST. PETE BEACH — Dozens of heavy hitters from Tampa Bay's restaurant industry got together Thursday and agreed on one thing: The area is a grape that's about to burst.
While beaches and theme parks have been the heart of Tampa Bay's tourist economy, the food scene here is at a pivotal moment. That's a good thing according to Erik Wolf, executive director of the World Food Travel Association. Speaking at the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce 2015 tourism lunch, and then at a smaller roundtable discussion with a group of tourism and restaurant industry people, his focus was food tourism.
And the restaurateurs were paying attention.
These days, Wolf said, food is an attraction every bit as magnetic as museums or roller coasters — a paradigm shift restaurants and tourism agencies need to fully embrace.
Not every visitor plays golf or shops, Wolf explained, but 100 percent of visitors eat. His back-of-the-envelope math: If 23 to 28 percent of travelers' budgets are spent on food, that means Tampa Bay area restaurants benefited from $1 billion in visitor meals last year.
The trick, he said, is "making each one a memory, not a meal."
A common misconception is that food tourists are those high-end "foodies" who seek out the five-star experience at a hefty price tag. In truth, that accounts for only about 8 percent of food tourism. In Wolf's mind there are 13 different "psycho-culinary travelers": the adventurer, the localist, those in search of authenticity, and so forth. Fueled by social media, the rise of celebrity chefs and a growing dissatisfaction with chain restaurants, food trekkers are, in essence, seeking stories.
And with 19 microbreweries in Pinellas County alone, plus a growing number of microdistilleries and ambitious independent restaurants, we have stories to tell.
The irony, said Mise en Place co-owner Maryann Ferenc in the roundtable discussion, is that the Tampa Bay area "has always been known as the chain capital of the world."
We're the birthplace of Hooters and Outback Steakhouse. But our chain reputation is really a myth, said David Downing, director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
"Look at Safety Harbor, Dunedin or Gulfport: not one chain restaurant."
Downtown St. Petersburg alone has debuted more than two dozen independent restaurants in the past two months, with more on the horizon like the high-profile Stillwaters Tavern.
But there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a food destination, said Wolf. Cities like Las Vegas or Reykjavík, Iceland, — neither rich agricultural areas — have achieved this goal by promoting their chefs, while other cities like Sacramento, Calif., or Portland, Ore., rely on celebrating local foodstuffs and regional culinary traditions.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"We're heading in the right direction and have come a long way in the last five years," said Frank Chivas, owner of six local restaurants including Salt Rock Grill and Rumba. He sees collaboration among chambers of commerce and restaurateurs as key to nurturing our nascent food tourism scene.
"Restaurateurs aren't in competition with other restaurateurs," he said. "They're in competition with grocery stores."
A destination needs to commit to promoting food tourism "with both a top-down and grass roots, bottom-up approach," Wolf said, but not all destinations are created equally. While the Tampa Bay area doesn't have a major culinary school, for example, in Portland there are three culinary schools.
"In some cities you'll see students in scrubs, but there everyone's walking around in chef whites," Wolf said.
Restaurants are the No. 1 attraction for many destinations and they are nearly always in the top three, Wolf said. It is key, he said, that travelers "have more pre-arrival information" about an area's food and drink allures — something that necessitates a clear and aggressive marketing effort.
For Charleston or the Basque region of Spain, a unique and coherent regional cuisine makes that a breeze. Tampa Bay's "message" is more muddled: Seafood at the beaches, historical Cuban food in Ybor City, hipster hotspots in South Tampa, craft beer and cocktails.
The goal, said Robin Sollie, president of Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, "is better unified messaging."
"Because if you don't do it," Wolf said, "another community in Florida will."
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.