Making Manatee a culinary destination

While Manatee County sparkles with valuable and enviable tourism assets, another one just could be on the horizon. The rising power of the millennial generation looks like the primary driver behind the wheel of a fledgling trend — a culinary scene. Local food production and sustainable practices are the priorities here. The popularity of celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and other television and social media magnets has propelled food into a national passion.

We have Gulf Coast beaches with sugary sand, mild surf and shallow waters; sports venues galore with world-class golf atop the list; blossoming cultural charms with several peerless destinations. One rarely hears about our restaurant and food assets, which are considerable when viewed collectively. Though tourism is our top economic driver, agriculture ranks second — with a deep, colorful history of citrus production, cattle ranching and vegetable farming among the big producers. Manatee County ranks seventh among Florida counties for agriculture production.

Seems like a natural pairing — tourism and agriculture.

The Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. has hit on a new promotional focus thanks to the societal obsession with celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and just about everything else involving fine cuisine — beyond merely edible food. The organization intends to unite various parts of the community to form a Culinary Arts Market District. The idea surfaced last year in the EDC’s strategic plan, which proposes the creation of a designated geographic district centered around a food and culinary experience. Sharon Hillstrom, the EDC’s president and chief executive, expounded on this idea in a May column in the Herald.

Manatee County has many ingredients to successfully create a culinary district, starting with education. The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee created a Culinary Innovation Lab in January 2014 as part of the school’s College of Hospitality & Tourism Leadership. The teaching kitchen and laboratory sits amid Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street. State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota also offers a culinary arts degree. Manatee Technical College operates a culinary arts career certificate program, and both Southeast and Manatee high schools provide culinary arts training. Keiser University offers an associate of science in culinary arts program.

Award winning and highly rated restaurants abound. The birth of the brew pub scene — with specialty beers and growlers in demand — to the mix.

With the creation of a Culinary Arts Market District, the EDC aims to boost a culinary experience that will generate jobs and increase tax revenue while attracting visitors and engaging residents. This has proven to be a winner elsewhere. This is a multiyear plan, so results won’t be seen for a while.

The Historic Cortez Fishing Village will no doubt be a central component of a marketing campaign what with the day’s catch front and center. The Geraldson Community Farm, which hosts a volunteer chef and “guest farm” to help produce a a supper for 20 guests on occasion, should be an attraction, too. The nonprofit Geraldson Community Farm, occupying 20 acres of county-owned land near Robinson Preserve in Northwest Bradenton, raises a variety of crops for its 200 member families. The farm, eight years old now, serves as an inspiration for the development of other community-supported agriculture, known as CSAs. Schools and neighborhoods in food deserts are joining the movement toward healthy food choices.

The food-aware millennial generation is not the sole stimulus for this trend, but anything that promotes wellness and nutrition — along with great taste — is good for us all. This month’s community discussion on the EDC’s strategic initiative on branding Manatee County as a culinary destination via collaboration between restaurants, chefs and culinary education programs is an outstanding start.