Downtown Jacksonville isn’t particularly vibrant at night. Despite years of efforts from city leaders and community groups to boost the appeal of the northeastern Florida city’s center, Downtown streets are largely deserted by the end of the traditional workday. However, that situation could be changing as a number of Jacksonville’s leading restaurateurs and nightlife operators have signaled their willingness to invest in the district.
“Right now, it’s an area where people go to work, but everybody leaves at 5 o’clock,” says Matthew Mannick, director of operations at Forking Amazing Restaurants. The company operates three venues and will open a fourth, Cowford’s Chop House, in Downtown Jacksonville, later this year. The group will also unveil a new distillery, Burlock and Barrel, in the city’s Riverside neighborhood this fall. “We wanted to get in on the ground floor,” Mannick says, noting that several on-premise operators have committed to launching venues in the Downtown area over the next few years. “We’ll be one of the first high-end restaurants opening up in the area.”
Allan DeVault, managing partner of the hugely successful Black Sheep restaurant in Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood, is opening a second, still-to-be-named location in Downtown. He sees it as risky, but wants to be part of the district’s renaissance.
“We have to make sure we can make our minimum on lunch, which we expect to be the case because there are tens of thousands of business folks down there during the day,” DeVault says, adding that the area’s nightlife is developing. “Downtown has a history of being quiet at night. That trend is changing for the better, and we hope to see a shift in our new spot.”
Barbara Bredehoeft had a restaurant in Downtown Jacksonville in the late 1980s and early 1990s before branching out to other neighborhoods. She now owns two of the city’s most highly regarded restaurants: BB’s in the San Marco area and Biscottis in the Avondale district. “For 26 years, community leaders have been saying that Downtown is about to blossom,” Bredehoeft notes. “It’s finally happening now.”
Barry Zeidwig, vice president and general manager of the North Division for Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida (SWS-Florida), is less confident. “People generally don’t go Downtown after they leave work,” Zeidwig says. “It’s a shame because a lot of good on-premise operators have been trying to make the area happen.” Noting problems with crime, Zeidwig adds that many people don’t feel safe there after dark. He also says that Downtown lacks a large residential population to drive around-the-clock business.
While Downtown evolves, other neighborhoods are growing their nightlife offerings. South of the city center is San Marco, while Riverside and Avondale are located to the west. All three areas draw hordes of residents with unique bars, restaurants and clubs.
“In the past five years, there’s been a massive transition from chain restaurants to the independent side,” notes Forking Amazing’s Mannick. “A lot of consumers are trying to stay local when they go out. People are starting to enjoy the flexibility and the creativity that chefs bring to the table at independent restaurants.”
That trend could get a further boost from a proposal that would change how liquor licenses are awarded to restaurants. Under current state law, restaurants must have a minimum of 150 seats and 2,500 square feet to qualify for a license to sell spirits—restrictions that don’t exist for wine and beer. The new bill, which was pending in the state legislature at press time, would reduce the restaurant requirements to a minimum of 100 seats and 1,800 square feet. All restaurants, regardless of size, must keep their kitchens open during business hours and earn the majority of their revenues from food sales in order to qualify for the licenses, which are less expensive than the tightly controlled licenses held by bars and retailers.
The legislation would be a boon to Bredehoeft, who received an exemption from the rule when she opened BB’s several years ago. Biscottis, however, doesn’t currently have a liquor license and would benefit from a change in the law. “We’re in limited space in a historic district, so we can’t expand,” she says. “The exceptions that have been granted are fabulous. They’ve allowed more boutique restaurants to open and have encouraged cool, hip operators, cultivating the idea of fresh and local.”
In Riverside’s eclectic Five Points section, Black Sheep draws locals and residents from further afield, due in part to the venue’s rooftop bar. “On the weekends, customers come from all corners of the county, including Jacksonville’s Northside and Mandarin neighborhoods, suburban Orange Park and the beaches,” DeVault says. “Happy hour and dinnertime remains more local—including business clientele from Downtown, which is just a mile away, and neighborhood people. After 9:30, it becomes what we refer to as Club Black Sheep, which attracts a younger, mostly single crowd.”
Emerging Cocktail Culture
Black Sheep has fully embraced the craft cocktail scene, which is in its infancy in the city. “Craft spirits and craft cocktails are definitely the rage right now,” DeVault says, noting that wine is popular during the week with business entertaining, but beverage sales skew toward cocktails on the weekends. The top-selling drink at Black Sheep is the Dusty Boot ($10), made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter aromatic bitters, simple syrup, and lemon and lime juices, served with a glass rimmed with smoked sea salt and cracked black pepper.
Mannick of Forking Amazing also sees the shift. “I know we’re a bit behind the times, but the craft cocktail scene is really picking up,” he says. “People are stepping out of their comfort zones and appreciating that bartenders do more than just pour a drink. They’re spending time and passion to make a cocktail that actually has multiple components. A number of local distilleries are starting to pop up as well.” He cites St. Augustine Distillery, named after the historic city located just south of Jacksonville.
Pete Lattanzio, general manager of the new restaurant Sbraga & Co. in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighborhood, has observed an increased interest in cocktails, but says that wine is more compelling to consumers at his venue. “There’s a heavy domestic wine crowd here,” he says. “We’re trying to expose people to some Old World and New World wines, but not necessarily by relying on the well-known labels.”
As in many cities, craft beer is resonating with many consumers. Intuition Ale Works, River City Brewing Co., Bold City Brewery and Engine 15 Brewing Co. are among the producers to make a splash in the market. Three of the breweries are investing in Downtown locations, further spurring what many hope will be a renaissance in that area.
The Beach Draw
Jacksonville straddles the St. Johns River, which means neighborhoods from Downtown to Riverside to San Marco and elsewhere all have water frontage. But just a few miles to the east lies the Atlantic Ocean. From Atlantic Beach in the north to Ponte Vedra Beach at the south end of the city and snaking further down to St. Augustine, Jacksonville-area beaches have a different vibe from the city, and they’re increasingly attractive to both residents and tourists.
“The beach is the hottest spot right now,” SWS-Florida’s Zeidwig says. “There’s a lot of construction and new restaurants.” He points to the success of Salt Life Food Shack, with Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine Beach locations.
Greg Saig, managing partner at Salt Life Restaurant Group, notes that many people—both residents and tourists—recognize the Salt Life brand, which includes beach retail stores alongside the two restaurants. “We have a nice hook with the tourists who come to town because they’ve heard of the brand,” he says. “It fits the culture and resonates with visitors.”
At both restaurants, Saig sells a roughly even mix of beer, wine and spirits, and the lion’s share of volume is with the large national brands. He notes the differences with his restaurants compared to the more eclectic and upscale venues in the city, but says his brand fits its niche well. “There are other zones in Jacksonville that are hot right now—a contrast to the way it was 20 years ago—but the beach is always going to have its place,” he says. “Who doesn’t like being at the beach?”
Retail Chains Abound
Jacksonville’s retail landscape is dominated by chains. Zeidwig of SWS-Florida notes that Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, ABC Wine & Spirits and Total Wine & More rule the market. “There’s a lot of chain business, and it’s hard for the independents to be competitive with the chains,” he says.
One standout is Broudy’s Fine Wine & Spirits. Owned by Barry Broudy, the five-unit company has stores throughout the Jacksonville area. The retailer says his Jacksonville Beach location is currently the most vibrant. Like Saig, he notes the influx of trendsetters into the area, spurring lots of new residential and retail development.
Local brands, unique labels and a large selection allow Broudy to separate his stores from the bigger players, he says. “As an independent retailer I stock the innovation brands,” he says. “The chains really don’t have room for a lot of those brands. The major distillers advertise all these new products that come out, but consumers don’t see them in every store.”
He adds that local distillers and brewers are carving out a significant niche in the market. “I may not sell as much Grey Goose as I used to, but it’s been replaced with St. Augustine Distillery vodka in my market,” he says.
Whether at the beach, in Downtown or in surrounding areas, the city of Jacksonville is providing new opportunities for industry growth. New breweries and distilleries continue to make headway, and the restaurant landscape has evolved significantly. “The scene, especially with alcohol, is tenfold what it used to be,” Bredehoeft notes.
Black Sheep’s DeVault agrees. “It’s a good time to be part of the culinary scene in Jacksonville,” he says. “I was born and raised here and we’ve been talking about reinvestment in Downtown for decades. Now we’re closer than ever. With growth in Riverside, Avondale, San Marco and the beaches, today’s culinary scene compared to five or 15 years ago is like night and day.”