The Way to the Heart Is Through the Tummy Restaurants Drive Downtowns

It’s Friday night after a long work week, and you’re ready to unwind. You know an evening out is exactly what you need to start your weekend.  

According to research and data provided by Statista, 11% of Americans eat out with friends at least once a week, 9% eat out with their family, and 10% even dine alone once a week. This doesn’t include those who dine with a partner (8%) and those with colleagues (9%) – but it’s easy to see the vital role the restaurant industry plays in any community’s economy. 

Food and beverage sales topped $800 billion in 2017, and Statista notes that before COVID, Americans were dining out more than ever before. Of that nearly $300 billion was spent in full service restaurants, employing 1.15 million people. 

 In Florida, 2018 stats provided by the National Restaurant Association show $50.1 billion in sales for Florida restaurants, contributing between $1.73 and $2.04 to the state’s economy for every dollar spent. 

From fine dining to the sports bar, there are over 300 restaurants in Volusia County serving up the best of the best, employing thousands of hospitality workers and supporting associated industries across Central Florida. Some of these locations have gained notoriety bringing high visibility to their area or have become economic drivers for their downtown communities. 

Leading the day-to-day operations, some owners or managers have families who have been part of the hospitality industry for generations, while others are inspired to try new challenges. Whatever their calling, for those who invest their time, talent and treasure into their community, they are helping lift up and enhance their neighborhoods and neighbors. 

Hermann and Courtney Tse

On Beach Street in Daytona Beach, Hermann Tse enjoyed a productive career in the software industry, and after discussing it with his wife Courtney, the couple began their search for the perfect place to become restaurateurs. About the same time, the owners of the Dancing Avocado Kitchen (DAK) were winding down two decades of service and ready to sell the successful business in 2018. 

“We were going to open a restaurant from scratch but it didn’t work out that way,” said Hermann. “They wanted to retire and wanted someone who’s going to keep it the way it is. When something is working you don’t start messing around with it.” 

Modernizing the business that faces Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the Tses say they’ve kept the menu, fabulously eclectic décor, and gift shop product lines consistent since taking the helm in 2018, a move their vegan and vegetarian regulars are thankful for. 

“Our ultimate goal is to have a vegan, vegetarian and carnivorous version of everything,” shared Courtney. “I have friends who are vegan and they love coming here because they have so many options.” 

A data and numbers guy at heart, Hermann is looking forward to the post COVID days when in addition to the tourist foot traffic, the bustling downtown sees a return of hundreds of professionals to their offices and steady crowds fill their tables. 

“Prior to COVID, this restaurant’s been growing, 20-30% year over year,” said Hermann, who has high hopes for the progress taking place downtown. “I’m looking for saturation. We can see with Brown & Brown moving in, more development coming here, that they’re trying to revitalize the downtown.”

Leo Motivans, Jackie Hamilton, and Richard Hamilton enjoy lunch at Cress Restaurant in DeLand

West of Daytona, in the county seat of DeLand, it’s a draw of a different kind that brings people through the doors of Cress Restaurant, in the city’s historic district. 

Created with a farm-to-table concept in mind, founders Hari Pulapaka, Ph.D., CEC, an associate math professor at Stetson University and wife Dr. Jenneffer Pulapaka, found inspiration in the creativity of cooking and a renewal of spirit in the joy of serving for more than a decade before bringing general manager and majority co-owner Tom Brandt on board. 

Tom Brandt

As a certified executive chef, Pulapaka has racked up more accolades than many in the back of the house ever will for Cress but not because they came easily. A determination and drive molded him into one of the best, earning him four James Beard Best Chef – South semifinalist honors, a season premier with Chef Emeril Lagasse, and most recently, a nod as the Orlando Sentinel’s Reader’s Choice 2020 Best Overall Restaurant. 

Handing over the daily operations to Brandt, it’s a continued commitment to locally sourced ingredients with global pizazz. From light and fresh, responsibly-sourced seafood to the Indian-inspired tikka masala curry, sous chef Phil Pierce, mentored by Pulapaka, works to deliver the same culinary experience and quality diners at Cress have come to expect and appreciate. 

“The sourcing of the food is one aspect, as we know where it’s coming from, we know how it’s grown, and the people who grow it, and that’s important,” said Brandt, recently connecting with a local producer of goat cheese. “We like to support local businesses when we can, and guests notice and recognize the fact that we are buying local.” 

Tapping into locally sourced ingredients is a common philosophy for 63 Sovereign owners whose tag line “A unique seasonal kitchen and raw bar where flavors meet colors for a food experience” sums up their mission. Nestled in a house turned restaurant on Granada Boulevard, it’s perfectly situated in the artsy, upscale downtown district of Ormond Beach, along “restaurant row.”

SoCal Tacos Panko fried shrimp at 63 Sovereign

Co-owned by Brandon Sheppard and Sergio Faenza, the pair have fine-tuned their passion for food, their way. Guests are treated to their take on traditional recipes according to Sheppard, with seasonal menus that change every four months. 

“We like to say it’s a progressive take on food from around the world,” explains Sheppard who allows the chef to recommend the fresh seasonal menu items. “It’s not necessarily the traditional approach to it. We put a modern flair on some of our dishes and have a wide variety of food on our menu.” 

With a staff of seven, Sheppard, who grew up in restaurants, jumped at the chance to own his own restaurant. He hopes to continue seeing the downtown area progress as a community by working together and creating a real connection between owners and guests. 

“I love the interaction with people,” he said. “We have a huge community presence here – you get to know them and we develop relationships with all of our regulars.” 

That attention to detail is one of the characteristics of Fugu Sushi Chef Frankie Hernandez. 

Perched on the corner of Granada Boulevard and N. Beach Street, it’s a million dollar view overlooking the Halifax River with a seasoned restaurateur backing the gamble of the exquisitely designed sushi bar and night club-themed restaurant. 

Frankie Hernandez

As the owner of the high end southern table Rose Villa Restaurant just a block away, Kirt Roberts has opened 25 restaurants throughout his career, and knows how to spot talent when he sees it. 

“I’ve been in this business for a long time and Frankie is one of the most talented people, creative people that I’ve met, and I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” said Roberts, owner of Fugu Sushi. 

Given carte blanche, Hernandez is as meticulous about his Japanese fusion cuisine’s ingredients as he is with the restaurant’s décor, and stunning fluid artwork by Angel Lowden transports guests to an underwater world while dining or afterhours socializing. 

“We stick with the traditional Japanese ingredients but we add a little twist to it like fusion,” shares Hernandez. “All fresh fish is flown in from Japan and the deeper waters of the Pacific, and that’s what distinguishes us from other restaurants. We want to educate people – what is Japanese food, what is sushi.” 

Hernandez says one other thing distinguishes them from other restaurants in the area. 

“We have the best view in town,” he declares. 

Fugu Sushi is part of a revitalization effort in the downtown core of Ormond Beach, similar to what’s taken place in DeLand and Daytona Beach over the past decade. 

Led by Bill Jones, it’s a focus on keeping the Ormond’s charm and history, while creating a place for every palate, said Roberts, who owned Ronin Sushi Bar in Daytona for nearly a decade before retiring. 

“Bill’s always loved this area and wanted it to become a thriving little entertainment zone, and it’s getting that way now,” said Roberts. “When you’re trying to create an entertainment zone you need a mix of options for the guests, so that they’ll come back. If you have everything from sushi to supper clubs, you draw from a wider demographic.” 

“Hospitality is a form of entertainment – when people come in, our job is to entertain the guest. It’s the meal, but it’s also the service, the ambiance of the restaurant. It’s symbiotic because we know, when we get people into the area, it’s going to help all of us.”