Local foodie culture spurs lectures, inspires entrepreneurs

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In a downtown tech office this week, guests munched on kale salad and steak skewers while sharing stories about being food entrepreneurs.

“I kind of saw what was happening in the Orlando tech community and the health-care community,” said former marketing professional Kristine Thomas, who hosted the event for her organization ORL Food Lab. “Here people have the opportunity to collaborate or work together.”

The lab is a sign that eating out is no longer the hippest way to be a foodie in Central Florida. A new wave of food entrepreneurs is deploying lectures, food tour businesses and even foodie festivals to engage with favorite restaurants and chefs.

It’s the latest trend for the Orlando region’s burgeoning restaurant industry and its fans, who want closer access to local tastemakers. At the ORL Food Lab hosted on Thursday by Thomas, who also runs a healthy dessert business called Welli, local business owners from Gezellig Cookies, Em’s Neighborhood Kitchen and Winter Park Seltzer shared stories about being food entrepreneurs.

In past monthly gatherings, the food lab has hosted 4 Rivers Smokehouse founder John Rivers, food truck event organizer Mark Baratelli and Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa owner Thomas “Tito” Ward. The audience is typically an even mix of restaurant professionals, others in the industry and food lovers.

“I wanted to meet people and I love food,” said Britt Wholihan, a Winter Park resident who attended the food lab. “I wanted to find a community of like-minded individuals.”

Organizers and entrepreneurs see these non-restaurant, food businesses as local, live versions of what they’re seeing on TV shows from celebrities like Alton Brown or Guy Fieri. Some food tours are running it as a business, while others such as ORL Food Lab are just hoping to elevate awareness for the local food scene.
ORL Food Lab usually charges about $15 for the events. But Thomas said the group is not making a profit and uses proceeds to cover food costs from participating eateries.

Education is a common thread among many of the ancillary groups popping up around the food industry, but eating is always involved.

“It’s not just going to a restaurant, but getting a more in-depth look at the food system,” said Ricky Ly, a local blogger who runs TastyChomps.com and is a full-time civil engineer. “A big factor is the internet and Food Network, where people are getting an extra close look inside restaurants and how their food is made.”

Another nonprofit group is launching an event starting March 1 called Orlando Foodstock, with four days of events around town highlighting different restaurant districts. It costs $49 a night for events on Church Street, Pointe Orlando and I-Drive 360; access is free to the fourth event, which will feature food trucks at Black Cauldron Taproom & Brewery.

Organizer Mary Jo Ross said she was hoping to create a multi-day festival similar to food celebrations in cities such as Miami. Events will take place both downtown and on International Drive. The difference from other events such as the Downtown Orlando Food & Wine Fest, Ross said, is that the food is free after entry. Proceeds support scholarships for local culinary students.

“For years we were a commercial restaurant community built around the theme parks and national chains,” Ross said. “Now because we have so many wonderful chefs and destination experiences, we have one of the most diverse collections of food entrepreneurs of any city in the country.”

Foodstock, Ross said, will be aimed more at local restaurateurs and chefs.

Another growing trend, food tours, is giving inside access to the restaurants as well as the people behind them.

A new company launched in September called Sanford Food Tours combines a walk through historic areas of Seminole County seat with a behind-the-scenes look and tasting session at local restaurants. Chefs and owners from Tennessee Truffle, Smiling Bison and marshmallow maker Wondermade make appearances and sometimes give samples of experimental dishes.

The tours cost $40, similar to tour companies started recently in Winter Park and downtown Orlando. Sanford’s tours are usually held around lunch and often on weekends to give access to restaurants during off-peak hours. Bookings are made through the Sanford Food Tours website.

“Where else can you go and listen to a local chef talk about their family recipe for apple strudel and how they got their business off the ground,” Sanford Food Tours owner Steve Tishman said. “And sometimes if we’re lucky, the chef will even come out and give us a taste of a new dish they are experimenting with.”


Article written by Kyle Arnold – first published in the Orlando Sentinel

karnold@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5664; Twitter, @kylelarnold or facebook.com/bykylearnold