John and Gail Sinclair are a power couple in the cultural community. John is chair of the department of music at Rollins and artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. Gail is executive director of the college’s Winter Park Institute and runs its popular speaker series. Photo by Rafael Tongol

HEMINGWAY WAS HERE

Gail Sinclair, a noted scholar on the works of Ernest Hemingway, uncovered the previously untold story of Hemingway’s youngest sister, who caused a stir at Rollins College in the early 1930s. Photo by Rafael Tongol

If Gail Sinclair and Ernest Hemingway had been contemporaries, it’s doubtful that the pair would have hung out much together. Sinclair, executive director of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, is a sweet-natured, soft-spoken scholar who loves analyzing literature and contemplating nature.

Hemingway, of course, was a hard-driving, hard-drinking, larger-than-life alpha male who hunted big game on the savannah, cheered toreadors as they slaughtered bulls, rushed to war zones and pummeled opponents senseless in boxing matches. 

But Papa’s internal demons won the final bout in 1961, when the writer of The Sun Also Rises.(1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1951) blew his brains out with a double-barreled shotgun.

Sinclair is among the most respected Hemingway experts in the U.S., having notched seemingly countless publications and presentations about the iconic author. She’s also a longtime officer in the Ernest Hemingway Society and Foundation and is on the editorial board of The Hemingway Review. 

You can imagine, then, Sinclair’s excitement when she discovered that Carol Hemingway, Ernest’s youngest sister, had attended Rollins from 1930 through 1932.

Sinclair learned about the connection at a 2002 Hemingway Society conference in Stresa, Italy, where she sat in on a presentation by Donald Junkins from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Junkins showed a videotaped interview with Carol Hemingway Gardner — who at age 91 was the author’s only surviving sibling.

“During the interview she mentioned Rollins twice,” recalls Sinclair, who had been a visiting assistant professor of literature at the college for two years. “As soon as I got back, I got her address from the alumni office and wrote her, asking if we could speak.”

Sinclair heard back from Gardner’s daughter, who said that her mother was willing to be interviewed. Within two weeks, Sinclair boarded a flight to Hartford, Connecticut — the nearest city with an airport — and drove for an hour and a half to historic Sheffield, Massachusetts, in Berkshire County.

“I called Mrs. Gardner’s home and told her who I was and that I wanted to confirm our meeting,” recalls Sinclair. “She was very polite and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t possibly meet with you. I already have an appointment.’ For a minute I thought the trip had been for naught. But I realized that the appointment she was referring to was with me.”

Sinclair spent several hours with Gardner — who had not seen or spoken to her famous brother since a nasty falling out in 1932 — and found the retired schoolteacher to be hospitable but content to live outside the spotlight. 

Few in Sheffield even knew that Gardner’s maiden name was Hemingway.

“She did have very fond memories of Rollins,” says Sinclair, who gave Gardner a book about the college’s history. Shortly following the interview, Gardner broke a hip and her health declined rapidly. She died just weeks later.

Sinclair later filled in the details about young Carol’s tumultuous time at Rollins — and her irrevocable split with Ernest — through private correspondence and archival records.

Carol Hemingway was a free spirit who as a student cohabitated with her boyfriend and wrote a story for the campus literary magazine that hinted at a same-sex romance. Photo Restoration and Colorization by Will Setzer/Circle 7 Design Studio

TUMULTUOUS TERM

Carol attended college in Winter Park so she could more easily visit Ernest, who had a home in Key West. Ernest, 12 years Carol’s senior, had become her legal guardian following the suicide of their father, a physician, in Oak Park, Illinois. 

A free spirit not unlike her brother, Carol’s unconventional behavior apparently raised eyebrows right away. Sympathetic English professor Kathleen Sproul was concerned enough to write President Hamilton Holt, who was traveling at the time.

 Sproul — whose detective novels included Death and the Professors — lamented to Holt that “certain influential people” considered Carol to be an undesirable sort of student. 

“Colleges for many years have done their best to strangle the creative mind and to set up taboos about the individual who can’t help being different from the run of society,” she wrote. “That difference is precious! Rollins, which can be a very great college, ought to try to conserve the greatness of her students.”

Replied Holt: “Don’t worry about Carol Hemingway. It is good that we have clashes of opinion at Rollins provided it does not lead to factional animosities. I like the girl, and if you find that some people are trying to depress her, do your share to express her, or get her to express herself, which is better.”

What prompted Sproul’s adamant defense is unknown. But Carol would soon give the campus plenty to have clashes of opinion about.

In 1931 she wrote “The Girls” for The Flamingo, a student literary magazine. The 600-word short story — deftly told using the terse but multilayered language popularized by her brother — seemed to imply a same-sex romantic relationship between two androgynously named friends, Lou and Glen.

However, it was Carol’s torrid relationship with John “Jack” Fentress Gardner, who had transferred to Rollins from Princeton, that rankled college officials and caused her famous older brother — no shrinking violet — to become uncharacteristically prudish. 

Complicating matters, Carol and Jack appear to have cohabitated in Lakeside Cottage, a campus dormitory. When this transgression became known in late 1932, Carol left Winter Park for Vienna, Austria, where Jack joined her in early 1933.

PRUDISH PAPA

Ernest despised Jack — though he may well have despised any suitor — and sent his sister scathing and hurtful letters, one of which accused her, without evidence, of saving money for an abortion. 

That Hemingway behaved like a jackass isn’t shocking — he was often cruel to those closest to him — but the depth of his vitriol toward his cherished youngest sister remains jarring today. The siblings never again communicated.

Jack and Carol were married in 1933 and tried to re-enroll at Rollins as a couple. But Holt — who positioned himself as a progressive but often behaved as a patriarch — was having none of it. In a memo to Dean Winslow Anderson he wrote:

“I don’t think we should let Jack Gardner and Carol come back even if they pay the full tuition. … I think the thing to do is write Carol and her husband why we cannot take them back, namely, that we had direct evidence that they were living together in Lakeside [a college dormatory] before they left.”

Nevertheless, despite Holt and Hemingway, love prevailed over long odds.

Jack became an author and educator who wrote about spiritualism, transcendentalism and anthroposophy (a philosophy based upon Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner’s belief that an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world exists.) 

He was the longtime headmaster of the Waldorf School of Garden City on New York’s Long Island. Waldorf schools — which use curricula based upon Steiner’s theories of child development — seek to develop intellectual, artistic and practical skills while cultivating imagination and creativity.

John “Jack” Fentress Gardner died in 1998. He and Carol Hemingway Gardner — who didn’t attend her brother’s funeral and, sadly given her obvious aptitude, never wrote for publication again — were married for 65 years.

Quite a story, all right. It might have been written as a work of fiction by Hemingway or perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald, another Lost Generation icon about whom Sinclair has academic expertise. She serves on the board of directors of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.

John and Gail Sinclair are a power couple in the cultural community. John is chair of the department of music at Rollins and artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. Gail is executive director of the college’s Winter Park Institute and runs its popular speaker series. Photo by Rafael Tongol

SCHOLARLY SLEUTH

Hemingway and Fitzgerald make rarified company for a girl born in rural Wisconsin to parents who didn’t graduate from high school. But Sinclair, always a voracious learner, earned an undergraduate degree in education and a master’s degree in English from the University of Missouri Kansas City.

In 1977 she married her high-school sweetheart, an ambitious young conductor named John Sinclair. “My first date with John was a blind date,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy is going to go places, and I want to go, too.’”

Luckily, they didn’t have to go too many places before putting down roots in Winter Park. In 1985, after a stop at East Texas Baptist University, John was named chair of the department of music at Rollins. In 1990 he also became artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park.

The Sinclairs share a fierce Midwestern work ethic. While John became one of the region’s most high-profile arts personalities, Gail taught American literature at Boone High School and earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Florida in Tampa. 

She commuted to classes — a 180-mile round trip. “That was before cellphones,” she says. “I considered that drive to be my night off.”

In 2007, after years as an adjunct and a visiting assistant professor, she was named executive director of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College, which runs a popular speaker series. She also teaches in the college’s Master of Liberal Studies program.

Sinclair — whose favorite books are To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby — has a professorial demeanor but is also self-deprecating and wryly funny. She’s proud of her Ph.D. but recognizes that great literature and classical music are thought by some to be superfluous — and even a bit snooty.

The couple’s young niece, for example, once told her teacher that her aunt and uncle were doctors and might be able talk about their work with the class during Career Day.

Recalls Sinclair: “The teacher asked what kind of doctors we were, and after thinking about it for a moment, our niece replied, ‘I don’t know, but I don’t think they’re the kind that help anybody.’”

It’s true, Sinclair says, that reading a good book isn’t likely to cure cancer. But that doesn’t mean literature — and, of course, music — isn’t crucial to societal health.

Adds Sinclair: “John and I comfort ourselves by educating young men and women, many of whom will be significant in concrete ways — the change makers and helpers, as Fred Rogers would say.” (The Sinclairs were close to the beloved Rogers, a 1953 Rollins graduate known worldwide for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.)

“But we also know that the arts are a necessary influence in history’s great civilizations — and music and literature are key elements in that realm,” she adds. “This may be an exalted way of justifying what we do for a living. But like medicine’s creed, we at least do no harm, and hopefully we provide some benefit.” 


 

TWO GIRLS 

BY CAROL HEMINGWAY

They sat on the third-floor fire escape of the dormitory and let their legs hang over the edge. Lou, slim-shouldered, hunched over her cigarette, and Glen leaned on one elbow and swung first one leg then the other with a slow rhythm. With large shallow eyes she watched Lou.

“The way you smoke is killing,” she said. You’re pretending to inhale. Don’t just hold the smoke in your mouth; draw some in and then let it out slowly,”

Lou still stared at the lake, puffed with a violent intake of breath, and started coughing. Glen didn’t laugh.

“I don’t care if I do look silly. Inhaling is bad for you anyway.”

“Listen. How do you ever expect to enjoy smoking if you don’t do it properly? You’re always talking about enjoying life. You’re a funny one. I’m not trying to kill you.”

Lou obediently tried again.

“I do want to enjoy things,” she said. “I want to enjoy everything in the whole world. I’ve been enjoying the lake.” She looked out over the water. “This morning there was a faint mist on it like the delicate film left by breath on a mirror. This afternoon I loved it. The steady sun made it look warm as a silent friendly companion. Last night it was —”

“Gosh, don’t start raving about the lake last night. I was out canoeing with that beast. There was just too damn much of your lake last night. I didn’t think I’d ever get home.” Glen lay back, pulled her knees up, and braced her heels against the edge of the platform.

“But Glen, didn’t you notice last night how the lake seemed to leer. It was repulsive as a cesspool. The stars were cool and disinterested, and there was a languid, insulting-sort-of breeze. I guess I just imagined a lot of things, sitting here by myself. I felt so very much alone.”

“You sweet kid. But for hell sake don’t get pensive. I’m not in the mood for pensiveness. Lighting another cigarette, she said “I wish I had a horse down here. I’d like to take him out in a gallop down all the long straight roads I could find.”

She stood up, looked down at Lou, and then far past her. There was a silence.

“Listen,” she stated with decision. “I’ve heard people say there’s something funny between us. It’s not good to have stories like that going around.” She looked down at Lou. “Because there isn’t anything, is there?”

Lou looked up at her cigarette and then continued to gaze at the water. She flicked her cigarette away.

“I wish I could see where the falling stars land,” she said, looking at the bright tip glowing on the ground. “I’m so tired. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep. I’m going to stay here. You can go in if you want to,” She was still watching the ground. She quivered slightly.

“It’s funny the way you can’t get away from yourself in the dark,” she went on. “It’s much easier to hide in the light. In the dark real fears take advantage.”

“Look out. You’ll be quoting in a minute.”

There was a violent convulsion of Lou’s body. Glen grabbed her around the waist.

“Say, you came near falling off,” Glen said.

“I’m a little dizzy, I guess.” She relaxed a little in Glen’s strong circle of arms.

“Poor little kid,” said Glen. “I’ll carry you in to bed.”

Cynthia Edmonds, who lives in the Winter Park house where she grew up, says that plein-air painting “inspires me in a profound way, and observing nature helps me to understand the shape, form and infinite colors of my subjects.”

IT’S A PAINTERLY PASSION

Cynthia Edmonds, who lives in the Winter Park house where she grew up, says that plein-air painting “inspires me in a profound way, and observing nature helps me to understand the shape, form and infinite colors of my subjects.”

Award-winning plein-air painter Cynthia Edmonds discovered her passion for art while taking classes at Rollins College as a child growing up in Winter Park. 

Her love of art led her to high-school art camp at Florida State University, where she returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in fashion illustration. Edmonds worked for many years as an advertising illustrator for local fashion retailers, including Ivey’s, Jordan Marsh and Hattie Frederick. 

She later earned a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Florida and moved to Washington, D.C., and later Seattle. There she worked as a photo art director and catalogue designer for Nordstrom while simultaneously discovering the wonder of oil painting. 

“Each day painting en plein air was an exciting challenge to capture the ever-changing light and shadow,” she says. “Working on location inspires me in a profound way, and observing nature helps me to understand the shape, form and infinite colors of my subjects.”

Edmonds, who returned to Florida in 2001 to devote her time to painting its colorful landscapes, now lives in the Winter Park house where she was raised.

A signature member of the American Impressionist Society and Plein Air Florida, she participates in plein-air exhibitions throughout the U.S. — including the annual Paint Out Winter Park, sponsored by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. 

The cover image on this issue of Winter Park Magazine, “Lake Berry Bananas,” was painted during the Polasek’s invitation-only event, when artists fan out across the city looking for intriguing subjects. Edmonds found this tranquil setting along Lake Berry, near the Windsong neighborhood. 

Edmonds’ paintings can be found in collections at the University of Central Florida and the Maitland Art Center. Her paintings are also included in the St. Joe Company’s Forgotten Coast Collection and the Shands Arts in Medicine Collection at the Venice (Florida) Regional Medical Center. 

Aficionados of Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival memorabilia will recall that Edmonds’ image of Greeneda Court on Park Avenue adorned the official festival poster back in 2007.

Edmonds loves to paint in her certified wildlife habitat garden, but also finds inspiration in France, Italy and Maine. More of Edmonds’ work can be seen at www.cynthiaedmonds.com. 

— Randy Noles

Carnivores will be excited by the meat entrées, including veal porterhouse with pan seared fingerling potatoes, collard greens and a chipotle cranberry sauce.

HAMILTON’S, REIMAGINED

Photographs by Rafael Tongol

The Macallan 12-year butterscotch pudding with salted toffee brittle and whipped cream has been a house specialty since Hamilton’s Kitchen opened five years ago.

Most of us begin having “who am I?” moments during adolescence. We determine what sort of people we aspire to become, then adapt our appearances, hobbies, vocations and habits accordingly. At five years old, Hamilton’s Kitchen is at a similar crossroads.

The restaurant debuted along with the award-winning Alfond Inn, the art-filled boutique hotel in which it’s located. Rollins College owns the much-lauded Alfond, which was recently ranked No. 2 in Florida during the Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.

Not long after, in an article entitled “The Soul of the Swanky South,” Winter Park Magazine described Hamilton’s Kitchen as “Modern Southern” and reported on the chef’s goal of making the indoor-outdoor space with an open kitchen appealing not only to lodgers but to the entire community.

The restaurant remains a Winter Park favorite. The décor is hearty and warm — call it polished-rustic — although the artwork in the lobby and behind the restaurant’s reception stand is different because the college’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum swaps pieces periodically. 

Certain classics remain on the Hamilton’s Kitchen menu, and the Modern-Southern ambiance continues to permeate. Still, today’s culinary team is in the process of redefining the restaurant without losing its core competencies.

Chef Stephen Doyle, who joined Hamilton’s in July 2017, and Assistant General Manager Christopher Giannone, who has been with the hotel since its opening in August 2013, are the masterminds.

You may have enjoyed Doyle’s food before. His resumé includes lengthy stints at Healthy Chef Creations, Church Street Station and the historic Tap Room at Dubsdread.

“We’re still going for a Southern-Florida-Caribbean vibe,” Doyle says, describing tweaks to the menu. “We’re also moving toward lighter foods, so diners won’t feel sluggish after eating.” 

Chef Stephen Doyle (left), who joined the culinary team in July 2017, and Assistant General Manager Christopher Giannone (right), who has been with the hotel since its opening in August 2013, are tweaking the Hamilton’s Kitchen menu, adding new items and keeping old favorites.

Still, the first new dish he describes sounds mighty hearty. It’s a braised Moroccan lamb shank with a chickpea stew that takes 36 hours to prepare from start to finish. The substantial entrée is most certainly not Southern, Floridian nor Caribbean. Sounds tasty, though. 

I can personally attest to the veal porterhouse with a porcini-cabernet sauce. The veal, a lovely slab of meat — Hamilton’s Kitchen is one of only a handful of places where you can get veal for dinner in this town — is served over just-tender baby carrots. 

Alongside is a curly whipped mound of Colcannon mashed potatoes, an Irish specialty laced with kale, bacon and onion. Did I eat every bit of it? Oh, yes. And did I quibble that the dish wasn’t particularly reminiscent of the South, the Caribbean or the Sunshine State – or low in fat? Oh, no.

Carnivores will be pleased to learn that Doyle and Giannone are excited about their ventures into “more unique meats,” including beef aged on the premises for one to two months, and Kurobuta pork. 

They’re also always on the lookout for what Doyle calls “the next newest coolest thing.” An example is Maple Blis — technically Blis bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup — which is so much better than maple syrup that it’s an injustice to refer to it by its generic name, they say. Maple Blis is added sparingly to select dishes.

“We want to cook with the right ingredients, serve them on a beautiful plate, allow the natural colors to do the work and not add much in terms of sauce painting,” Doyle notes.

Let’s not focus on culinary boundaries, particularly since Doyle doesn’t. Let’s instead take Hamilton’s Kitchen for what it is — an eclectic restaurant that doesn’t fit neatly into a single niche — and then talk about what’s coming up.

I’d say, overall, that it’s an inviting place with a menu that’s familiar enough to appeal to timid eaters and sufficiently creative to attract culinary adventurers. 

Most appetizers are on the familiar side: a cheese board, a shrimp cocktail and a Caesar salad — albeit with brioche croutons — and a house-made dressing. 

Being daring, though, we opted for a trio of cranberry-walnut-goat cheese truffles atop a smear of black garlic, and an order of tuna tartare. The chopped raw tuna, with its avocado accompaniment and soy glaze, was a fresh, flavorful starter adorned with a “chip” of fried salmon skin.

Starters include cranberry-walnut-goat cheese truffles atop a smear of black garlic (above left), and tuna tartare with avocado and soy glaze accompanied by a “chip” of fried salmon skin (above right).

Dinner entrèes encompass a little of everything. Those wishing to play it safe with old favorites might order Italian meatballs, a pork rib-eye or Scottish salmon with a citrus-coconut sauce. (Hey, it may sound exotic but it’s salmon, for heaven’s sake.)

Besides the veal porterhouse, my dining companion and I opted for the lemon-sage chicken butternut gnocchi. The orbs themselves are made in the kitchen from potatoes and squash — which must be quite a labor-intensive job. 

The gnocchi is tossed with heirloom tomatoes, portobello mushrooms and petite spinach, then topped with tender lemony skin-on chicken and laced in an herb-butter sauce. Walnut-crusted halibut, cashew-crusted grouper and crispy duck with a blackberry element are among the other offerings. 

At my table, we added an asiago risotto with asparagus just so we could try it. After sprinkling on a dash of salt, we enjoyed the creamy, cheesy taste.

The desserts looked exceptional, but most were seasonal. I prefer to write about foods my readers can order, even if they don’t visit for six months. What a burden! (Not.) 

That left me with the Macallan 12-year butterscotch pudding, which has been a house specialty since Hamilton’s Kitchen opened. I remember the dessert looking more impressive than the pale confection in a mason jar that showed up at our table. 

Still, the creamy, spirited pudding with salted toffee brittle and whipped cream wows me every time I indulge. No wonder it remains on the menu no matter who’s running the kitchen. “I’d die in a bathtub of that pudding,” Doyle says. So obviously it’s not going anywhere under his watch.

A restaurant isn’t only about food, of course. Which brings us to wine. At Hamilton’s Kitchen, the wine list focuses on small-batch and family wineries in Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley, with a strong emphasis on fine French and Italian wines.

“We use a lot of wines that you may not see at the grocery store,” Giannone notes, adding that wines from Napa Valley, South Africa and South America are also available. 

Plans are in the works to add a device in the bar, located adjacent to the restaurant, that would allow an opened bottle of wine to remain fresh for three months. Giannone plans to stock it with splurge wines that might retail for $250 to $350 a bottle. 

“That way, guests can buy a glass for $40 to $60 and give it a whirl” without committing to a huge expense, he says.

Exceptional service is another goal. “We’re hospitality-forward, meaning we care about the whole experience, not just great food,” Giannone notes. 

Carnivores will be excited by the meat entrées, including veal porterhouse with pan seared fingerling potatoes, collard greens and a chipotle cranberry sauce.

Toward that goal, he and Doyle may bring back tableside elements, perhaps delivering fish cooked in parchment “papillote” then slicing the paper open at the table so guests are treated to the aroma as the scented steam floats above the plate.

The pair have several additional surprises in the works. Among them are chef’s nightly specials, more frequent live music in the lounge or dining room, day-of-the-week specials (such as prime ribs every Tuesday) and happy hour specials in the bar on “Shake It Off Thursday.” 

If you live nearby and need a go-to place, check out Hamilton’s Kitchen again if you haven’t been lately. The same suggestion applies if you’re seeking a special occasion destination. 

Since the menu is varied and the ambiance relaxed, plus outdoor tables are on a patio secluded from traffic, this restaurant has a lot to offer — even now as it seeks to redefine itself. 

Hamilton’s Kitchen
300 East New England Avenue
407-998-8089
thealfondinn.com/dining/hamiltons_kitchen

Carnivores will be excited by the meat entrées, including veal porterhouse with pan seared fingerling potatoes, collard greens and a chipotle cranberry sauce.

Crustacean Destination

JoAnne McMahon is the multi-restaurant entrepreneur behind Blu on the Avenue, where the seafood is fresh and unpretentious. She also owns 310 Park South and, coming soon, Bovine.

It’s kind of all about lobster at Blu on the Avenue. The clawed crustaceans are flown in daily from Maine — where else? — and the swordfish, like the menu’s other finny features, are just as fresh.

Yet, while Blu’s dining room has a certain panache, the space isn’t so formal that you’d feel uneasy settling around a table for dinner with your whiny toddler or bickering teens. 

“It’s not a special-occasion, white-tablecloth establishment,” explains JoAnne McMahon, the multi-restaurant entrepreneur behind this five-year-old eatery. “It’s a little bit more upscale than the 310 concept. It’s hipper, I guess.” 

The 310 to which McMahon refers is neighboring 310 Park South, her first table-service restaurant, which now has clones in downtown Orlando and Lake Nona. Even more so than Blu, 310 was designed to be the opposite of stuffy. 

“Back in 1999, when I opened 310, Park Avenue had very few restaurants, and the restaurants it had were very high end,” she recalls. “They didn’t welcome children. None of them even had highchairs.”

McMahon, who also owns the Partridge Tree gift shop on Park Avenue, recalls that her retail customers often asked her where to take their children for lunch. “There wasn’t much to recommend,” she says.

Over the subsequent two decades, 310 has become an Avenue stalwart, offering family friendly fare from burgers to steaks. Jeans and T-shirts are entirely appropriate attire.

McMahon kept approachability in mind as she developed Blu. It, too, offers highchairs, although the ambiance is more urbane than that of its laid-back sibling. A swervy ceiling feature above the bar adds a sliver of sleek, as do dual waterfalls behind the bar. Subtle theming, such as pictures of sand and shells, carry forth the nautical vibe.

The seafood selections are fresh. The kitchen makes its own sauces and dressings from scratch, while most of the produce is raised locally. Still, the presentation at Blu is noticeably un-fancy. 

The seafood platter at Blu has a highbrow name: plateau de fruits de mer. Its oysters, shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat are welcomingly fresh and served on a metal compartmentalized plate with a trio of dips.

While the restaurant offers upmarket dishes such as sea scallop risotto and filet Oscar, the menu lists far more sandwich and salad selections than fine-dining entrées. Similarly, the food is presented in an unpretentious way. 

The seafood platter, for example, has a highbrow name: plateau de fruits de mer. Its oysters, shrimp and jumbo lump crabmeat are welcomingly fresh. But they’re served on a metal compartmentalized plate with a trio of dips in the middle and plastic-wrapped saltine-style crackers. 

My dining companion and I concluded that the light brown dip, a mignonette, must have been for the crab, since the cocktail sauce obviously went with the shrimp. And the horseradish — well, that could have gone with the shrimp, too. 

Our server confirmed that the mignonette is, indeed, for the crab, so that’s how we ate it. An internet search later revealed that mignonette dip is designed specifically to pair with raw oysters. I would have welcomed that information as the platter was served. 

Our “Super Shrimp” sushi roll was presented with more dramatic flair. It sits atop a long deep-green leaf placed on a stylishly curved oblong plate and embellished with a zigzag of eel sauce. The base is tempura shrimp, and the flavors work well.

As for entrées, our server told us that “anything with lobster” was the house specialty. That gave us three tempting options: lobster carbonara, a lobster roll and a lobster cobb salad. 

We went with the carbonara, and it was a sound choice. Sublimely sweet Maine lobster chunks are tossed with prosciutto, scallions and Grana Padano cheese along with delightfully thick bucatini pasta. 

Blu’s carbonara (above right) is made with sublimely sweet Maine lobster chunks tossed with prosciutto, scallions and Grana Padano cheese along with delightfully thick bucatini pasta. The “Super Shrimp” sushi roll (above left) sits atop a long deep-green leaf placed on a stylishly curved oblong plate and embellished with a zigzag of eel sauce. Almond coated swordfish (bottom left) is grilled, then topped with brown butter and served with sweet potato purée and a load of way-too-tasty fried brussels sprouts.

We also ordered the swordfish, which is coated in a layer of thin almond slices, then grilled. Add brown butter, a sweet potato purée and a load of way-too-tasty fried brussels sprouts and you’ve got a satisfying meal.

I usually skip dessert, but when the server explained that McMahon personally prepares the sweet indulgences — including the peanut butter pie — I couldn’t say no. The pie is a moussey, nutty confection on a crust made of chocolate wafer crumbs. We were full, but scooped up every bite.

McMahon has certainly succeeded in creating a seafood restaurant that’s far more high-end than a fried shrimp joint, yet quite a bit humbler than a fine-dining restaurant. That’s a nice, comfortable niche to occupy.

At press time, McMahon was preparing to open a new steakhouse, called Bovine, located across Park Avenue in the space occupied for decades by Park Plaza Gardens. There’ll be some upscale touches, she says, such as Caesar salads prepared tableside.

Still, since Bovine is part of the 310/Blu family, you know the ambiance won’t be stuffy. Notes McMahon: “It’ll be affordable, even as we bring back traditional steakhouse service.”

I’ll bet Bovine’s will even have highchairs. 

Blu on the Avenue
326 South Park Avenue
407-960-3778
bluontheavenue.com

Carnivores will be excited by the meat entrées, including veal porterhouse with pan seared fingerling potatoes, collard greens and a chipotle cranberry sauce.

A College's Civic Tuition

Rollins College has embarked on a major building initiative, both on and off campus. Reviewing plans are (left to right) Ed Kania, vice president for business and finance; Jeffrey Eisenbarth, who recently retired from the post now held by Kania; Allan Keen, chair of the college’s board of trustees; and Grant Cornwell, president of the college since 2015. Photo by Rafael Tongol

Few colleges and college towns are as intertwined, geographically and historically, as Rollins College and Winter Park. But when the college recently announced its biggest off-campus building initiative in years — a cluster of three projects dubbed the Innovation Triangle — some locals instinctively balked.

“Rollins consumes City of Winter Park services and does not pay property taxes,” wrote one poster on a Facebook page devoted to discussions of city-related political issues. 

This easily debunked view persists in some circles, and usually comes up whenever the college buys property located outside the boundaries of its 70-acre campus hugging Lake Virginia.

Since Rollins has been a player in the local commercial real estate market since the late ’90s, its economic impact on the city has been a relatively frequent topic of discussion.

On one point, there’s apparent unanimity. The presence of a prestigious liberal arts institution is confirmation of Winter Park’s stature as the cultural and intellectual mecca of Central Florida. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

Still, the questions persist. Is the college a beguiling but costly jewel in Winter Park’s crown, valuable primarily for its prestige? Or is it a powerful economic engine whose presence is crucial to the community’s prosperity?

It’s fair to say that the relationship is symbiotic. But it’s not fair — or accurate — to say that Rollins doesn’t pay property taxes. What’s more, property taxes comprise only a fraction of the college’s contribution to the city’s ongoing prosperity.

“We haven’t commissioned a formal economic impact study in a number of years,” says Allan E. Keen, chairman and CEO of The Keewin Real Property Company and chair of the college’s board of trustees. “There just hasn’t been a need. In our view, the facts are pretty obvious.”

The last such report was in 2008. A 27-page tome by Pittsburgh-based Tripp Umbach estimated that in 2006, the college generated $56.9 million in economic activity for the City of Winter Park, $110.6 million for Orange County and $204.9 million for the State of Florida.

Tripp Umbach, like all such consultants, used complex calculations to determine the college’s direct and indirect economic impact. In addition to taxes paid and estimated local spending, it analyzed such factors as volunteer hours from students and faculty to quantify the college’s social and quality-of-life benefits. 

Similar analyses are frequently used by local governments to justify use of taxpayer dollars for construction of high-profile projects such as sports facilities or convention centers. The resulting documents are generally obtuse to non-economists — and subject to suspicion because vested interests usually commission them.

However, a few easy-to-understand numbers related to Rollins offer an unambiguous and irrefutable overview of the college’s importance to the city’s economy.

DOLLARS AND CENTS

All Rollins-owned property in Winter Park is valued at a whopping $196,726,893, according to the college’s Office of Business and Finance and the Orange County Property Appraiser’s Office.

Property used for educational purposes — including the 70-acre main campus — is tax exempt. So last year, no taxes were paid on property valued at $117,322,856.

However, property not used for educational purposes, valued at $79,404,037, remained on the tax rolls. In 2017, the college ponied up $998,445 — an increase of $148,222 from 2015 — making it the city’s second-largest payer of property taxes.

At the current millage rate of $4.09 per $1,000 of taxable value, almost a third of that amount — $324,945 — bolstered the city’s general fund. The remainder went to Orange County and Orange County Public Schools. (The millage rate has remained unchanged for a decade, but valuations have soared.)

Within the city, only sprawling Winter Park Village, a major mixed-use development on U.S. Highway 17-92, had a higher property tax bill than Rollins. That’s because the college rarely changes the taxable status of its real estate purchases. And its commercial properties are taxed no differently than those owned by for-profit investors.

“So, people think Rollins doesn’t pay property taxes,” sighs Jeffrey Eisenbarth, the college’s recently retired vice president for business and finance. “That’s an urban legend. And it doesn’t seem to go away, no matter how many times we show and tell.”

In fact, the college’s property tax bill has soared since the Alfond Inn’s 2013 opening. The boutique hotel, which sits on a 3.3-acre parcel at the corner of New England and Interlachen avenues, is valued at $26,164,543. It received a property tax bill of $359,626 in 2017 — an increase of $98,510 from two years ago.

Of more than 60 properties bought by the college since 1993, 45 of them — or 75 percent — have remained on the tax rolls, adds Eisenbarth, who ended a productive 10-year stint at the college in May. He was replaced by Ed Kania, who held a comparable post at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. 

Likewise, Rollins-owned properties get no breaks when it comes to utilities, which have been owned by the city since a 2005 break from Florida Power & Light. 

In the 12 months prior to September 2018, the college spent $2,257,517 on electricity, making it the city’s largest user. The college’s water bill — $153,310 — was behind only AdventHealth, formerly Winter Park Memorial Hospital. 

Rollins employees and students clearly bolster local businesses, says Betsy Gardner Eckbert, president and CEO of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. “When students leave for the summer, we feel the impact downtown,” she says.

The college has 726 full-time-equivalent staffers and faculty members who earn a cumulative $71,801,893 per year. There are 3,093 students, including those enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts — the day school — and its two evening programs, the Hamilton Holt School and the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business. 

That’s a lot of money and a lot of people within walking distance of Winter Park’s busy Central Business District. And the college itself spends heavily on an array of products and services from local suppliers. 

What would a formal economic impact study show now? Nine years ago, when Tripp Howard calculated $56.9 million, the college’s property taxes were just $140,000 and its payroll was just $46.4 million. 

Since then, its property taxes have increased seven-fold — due in large part to development of the Alfond — and its payroll has leapt by 54 percent. Depending upon the methodology used, a consultant could likely justify a figure north of $100 million today.

And Gardner Eckbert notes that the college’s international students often have parents who are prime relocation prospects. The chamber has even initiated a “global membership” to keep moms and dads around the world connected to — and interested in — Winter Park

BUILDING ON SUCCESS

Rollins entered the commercial real estate arena in 1999, when it developed SunTrust Plaza and an accompanying parking garage on the 400 block of Park Avenue South. Not everyone was happy about it.

The college already owned the 2.5-acre site, upon which sat a three-story brick building that once housed the Winter Park Grade School, later Park Avenue Elementary. Rollins, which had bought the property in 1961, used the building for classrooms and offices. But by the late 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair and had become structurally unsafe.

The college announced plans to demolish the building — which had been built in 1916 — and redevelop the site. The move inflamed preservationists, some business owners and many longtime residents who had attended the school and retained a sentimental attachment to it.

Still, after much debate, SunTrust Plaza was opened as a three-story, 82,000-square-foot complex abutting an 850-space parking garage. Today’s tenants include Gap, Starbucks, Restoration Hardware and Merrill Lynch, as well as its namesake bank.

At 40 feet tall, the structure exceeds the city’s height limit by 10 feet. But with the third story partially recessed, it doesn’t feel out of scale with the rest of Park Avenue. And last year it generated $273,615 in property tax revenue.

Subsequently, Rollins began buying various commercial properties along the south side of West Fairbanks Avenue, from the campus entrance to the railroad tracks.

In 2012, it redeveloped Winter Park Plaza — a strip center anchored by Ethos, a vegetarian restaurant — and is now landlord to an array of businesses, from a waxing salon to a vitamin emporium.

The center’s original developers had defaulted on a $7 million note, and the college snapped it up for $2.8 million via an online auction. It generated $49,279 in property taxes last year.

Other college-owned commercial properties lining Fairbanks bring in considerably less, but all contribute proportionally, based upon their assessments. A few properties, however, have been removed from the tax rolls as they’ve been converted to educational use.

In 2015, for example, Rollins jumped across Fairbanks to buy its only property on the north side of the street — the building at 315 West Fairbanks that for years housed the law offices of the late Russell Troutman. 

That building — which now houses the Hamilton Holt School — no longer generates tax revenue. Neither does 200 West Fairbanks, once home to a bar and restaurant and now site of the college bookstore. 

In 2007, Rollins began buying up townhomes, corralling nine units on Orchard Avenue near Mead Botanical Garden. The college uses these and other scattered townhomes and single-family homes for faculty housing. New hires pay market rate for rent and may remain for a maximum of three years.

The homes remain on the tax rolls because they’re considered incidental to the college’s core educational mission. Faculty housing generated $81,981 in property taxes last year.

In the Central Business District, Rollins owns the Samuel B. Lawrence Center, a city block gifted to the college in 1994. A four-story commercial building on the site, home to Valley National Bank and other tenants, generated $89,530 in property taxes last year. 

Although the Lawrence Center is slated for redevelopment through the Innovation Triangle initiative, the commercial building will stay and remain on the tax rolls.

A WIN WITH THE INN

Still, the biggest commercial project ever undertaken by the college was the Alfond. “I was on the job two months and got the job of hotel developer,” recalls Eisenbarth, who had been hired from a comparable post at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. 

The Alfond family — longtime college benefactors — had already committed to contributing $12.5 million for the project, with the condition that profits be used to provide scholarships and endow a scholarship fund. But $12.5 million wasn’t nearly enough to get the job done.

Instead of partnering with a developer, though, Eisenbarth and Keen recommended that the college finance the remainder with a $20 million loan from its reserves, to be repaid over 25 years at 4.5 percent interest.

In 2009, the college spent $9.9 million for a 3.3-acre parcel at the corner of New England and Interlachen avenues, just blocks from the campus.

On the site once stood the legendary Langford Hotel, a local landmark that closed in 2000 and was demolished in 2003. Ground was broken for the new hotel in November 2011, and its grand opening was in August 2013.

Almost immediately, the 112-room facility began earning rave reviews. Most recently, in Conde Nast Traveler’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards, it was rated No. 1 in Florida, No. 7 in the U.S. and No. 63 in the world. It also holds a AAA Four-Diamond rating.

But if you’re an accountant, you’ll be more impressed by the numbers. Last year, the Alfond grossed more than $16 million and earned an operating profit of more than $6 million.

From the net, the college was repaid $1.2 million. The remainder bolstered Alfond Scholars, a program established by the hotel’s namesake family. This agreement will continue for 25 years and is expected to eventually boost the scholarship endowment to $125 million.

The Alfond Inn is the biggest — and most lucrative — of the college’s commercial developments. Profits endow a scholarship fund.

FOR THE FUTURE

Keen says the college isn’t looking to buy more property unless it’s strategically placed near the campus or offers proximity to other college-owned assets. “We try to be a good neighbor,” he notes. “That’s why nobody builds anything prettier or better than we do.”

Not that they don’t try. Comparably sized colleges, particularly those in unremarkable towns or even rural areas, are increasingly promoting mixed-use commercial and residential development around their campuses to help lure students and faculty.

But such colleges rarely have the expertise — or the cash — to do it themselves. So they take on development partners who assume the risks (and reap most of the rewards).

However, creating an appealing college-town atmosphere around Rollins has never been necessary. It’s hard to improve on Winter Park just the way it is — and has been for generations.

So why is Rollins in the development business? Because it can be, for one reason, blessed as it is with resources, expertise and an enviable location. 

But it’s also positioning itself for growth — perhaps decades from now — and in the meantime generating healthy returns in both asset value and profit. Not including the Alfond, the college’s commercial real estate ventures in 2017 grossed $4.7 million and netted $2.6 million — an eye-popping 55 percent margin.

“The campus is landlocked and lake-locked,” says Keen. “When we buy property, it isn’t to sell. Rollins has been here for 130 years, so we hope to keep what we buy basically forever. Obviously, that means we look further ahead than most buyers would.”

Eventually, Keen says, much of the real estate Rollins absorbs may be used for campus expansion. But “eventually,” in this context, may mean generations from now. In the meantime, profits are supplementing the college’s budget and allowing for more generous financial assistance programs than would otherwise be possible. 

“The sole purpose of our commercial real estate holdings is to provide revenue to support financial aid for our students,” says President Grant Cornwell. “We’re committed to keeping Rollins financially accessible to qualified students without regard to their socioeconomic status. The only way we can do this is by having sources of revenue other than tuition to support our budget.” 

That’s especially important, considering that Rollins is the most expensive college in the state, according to a survey in Business Insider. Tuition, room, board and other expenses amount to $67,110 per year — more than triple what a state university costs. 

But very few actually spend that much. According to the college, the average financial aid package for students who show a demonstrated need is $35,000 — and more than 85 percent of students receive assistance in some form.

“It’s certainly not a trend for small liberal arts colleges to do what we’ve done, because no other small liberal arts college is located in Winter Park,” says Cornwell. “Unlike other colleges, we’re incredibly fortunate in that we happen to be situated in such a beautiful, charming and prosperous city.”


ROLLINS EARNS NATIONAL KUDOS

For the 24th consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report has ranked Rollins College among the top two regional universities in the South in its annual rankings of “Best Colleges.”

Rollins was ranked No. 2 among the 165 colleges and universities in that category, which encompasses schools that provide a full range of undergraduate and master’s-level programs. Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, finished first.

“Rollins is proud to be recognized so prominently among the nation’s best colleges year after year,” says Rollins President Grant Cornwell. “Our longevity at the top of this ranking is a testament to the college’s long tradition of academic excellence, the rigor of a Rollins education and the achievement of our innovative faculty and industrious students.”

The U.S. News & World Report rankings evaluate colleges and universities on 16 measures of academic quality, including such widely accepted indicators of excellence as student retention, graduation rates and qualifications of faculty members.

In addition to ranking among the top regional universities in the South, Rollins was recognized for its strong commitment to undergraduate teaching, its high proportion of international undergraduates and for having one of the best undergraduate business programs in the country. 

The college was also named one of the South’s most innovative schools. And it made the list of schools whose 2017 graduates had the lightest debt loads. The average was $32,700 for those who completed undergraduate degree programs.


INNOVATION TRIANGLE IS MOVING FORWARD

The conceptual site plan for the Lawrence Center included a parking garage. The garage is being reconsidered, but the rest of the redevelopment is proceeding as planned.

Rollins recently announced — and then unexpectedly placed on temporary hold — plans for what it dubbed the Innovation Triangle, which involves redeveloping the Samuel B. Lawrence Center and expanding the Alfond Inn.

Occupying a city block in downtown Winter Park, the Lawrence Center — owned by the college since 1994 — is bounded on the north by New England Avenue, the south by Lyman Avenue, the west by Knowles Avenue and the east by Interlachen Avenue, across the street from the Alfond.

According to preliminary plans, the four-story, 40,000-square-foot building now occupied by Valley National Bank and other tenants would remain on the site’s northwest corner. Two new buildings — one housing the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business and one housing the Cornell Fine Arts Museum — would be built on the southeast and northeast corners, respectively. 

The Pioneer Building, on the southwest corner, would be razed and replaced by a two-story, three-level parking garage. The city had expressed interest in negotiating a public/private partnership that could have added one or two levels and at least 120 additional spaces of public parking.

However, in late August the college announced that it was delaying the Innovation Triangle projects “in order to explore and evaluate some cost-saving and project-sharing opportunities that will benefit the college and the community,” according to a statement.

Plans for the Alfond expansion were set to go before the Winter Park Planning & Zoning Commission in September. The Lawrence Center redevelopment was scheduled for consideration in October, when the college planned to seek a conditional use permit for the property’s site plan. 

Later, once details for the buildings had been finalized, a zoning change from O-1 (office) to PQP (public, quasi-public) would have been required before the Lawrence Center could get underway.

Had the college changed course? Had the spectre of public opposition to city participation in a parking garage prompted a retrenchment?

“The hotel expansion, the business school and the museum are all absolutely going forward,” says Allan E. Keen, chairman and CEO of The Keewin Real Property Company and chair of the college’s board of trustees. “And they’re going forward apace. I regret it if anyone took our statement to mean there’d be a prolonged delay, or that we’d abandoned any of these strategic initiatives. We’re just working some details out.”

More specifically, college officials wanted to think through the parking options. While a garage at the Lawrence Center in which the city partnered might have been welcomed by visitors to the Central Business District, it wouldn’t alleviate the long-standing parking shortage on the main campus. 

Soon to exacerbate the problem is a new $40 million student residential complex, which is being built to replace the mundane maintenance and storage buildings now occupying prime Lake Virginia real estate. 

The housing is needed because the college is raising its two-year residency requirement to three years, moving juniors onto campus. When it all shakes out, college official estimate that about 200 more students will list 1000 Holt Avenue as their address.

Of course, most juniors already drive to class from wherever they live. But having them as full-time residents will mean more cars, more of the time, vying for space. 

One of several possibilities being discussed is construction of a parking garage on a college-owned surface lot bordered by Fairbanks Avenue and Ollie Avenue, abutting Dinky Dock Park. If that happens, the spaces would be only for college use.

None of this has any relevance to the Alfond expansion, which has included in its design about 150 additional parking spaces in an underground garage. The hotel project was conceptually included as part of the Innovation Triangle but is unaffected by what happens — or doesn’t happen — in the Lawrence Center, according to Keen.

Plans call for the addition of 70 rooms to the 112-room hotel along with a 7,000-square-foot spa and health club, a 4,000-square-foot meeting space/gallery and 323 square feet of retail space.

“We want to do this expansion in the most efficient and effective way possible,” says Keen. “But all of the projects we’ve announced are moving ahead.”

Rollins President Grant Cornwell says that the Innovation Triangle initiative will strengthen three of the college’s major strategic assets by further integrating them into the community.

Cornwell notes that the Alfond clearly needs additional capacity for lodging and events. “What I hear from fellow Winter Park residents all the time is they can’t imagine Winter Park without the Alfond,” he says. “I also hear that they can never get a room. We know now is the right time to move forward with the proposed expansion.”

Having the museum and the business school join the hotel in a downtown location, he adds, will “impact business synergies and provide an enhanced arts and culture presence” in the Central Business District.

“Rollins greatly values our history and involvement with Winter Park,” Cornwell continues. “We’re proud that our being here and the programs we offer are high on the list of what makes Winter Park a great place to live and work.”

The Alfond and the Cornell are already soulmates, notes museum director Ena Heller. Ted and Barbara Alfond, both members of the Class of ’68, gave the college $12.5 million to jump-start construction of the hotel. They also donated a world-class contemporary art collection, pieces of which are displayed at the hotel on a rotating basis. 

More space will allow more of the museum’s encyclopedic collection to be on view, Heller says. The current Cornell building, tucked away on the Rollins campus, is just 10,000 square feet. The proposed building is about 36,000 square feet.

“It’s very exciting,” notes Heller, who adds that the move will make the museum more inviting for the public and more conducive for teaching — which is crucial for a curricular museum with a college affiliation. 

“There’ll be more galleries, room for lectures and a seamless connection between the museum and the Alfond,” she says. “The facility we have now is inadequate for events and classes.”

Best of all, upon completion of the new Cornell, both the northern and the southern reaches of the Central Business District will be anchored by world-class museums. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, located on Park Avenue North, has been a major downtown draw since 1997.

The Crummer, which operates on the main campus from Roy E. Crummer Hall and the Bush Executive Center, will also be a benefit to the Central Business District, says Cornwell. Its new building is expected to be 80,000 square feet.

“The thought was to encourage linkages between the Crummer’s resources and those who run businesses in Winter Park,” he notes. “We see a natural synergy here that we can improve upon.”

The Innovation Triangle’s timetable is flexible, says Keen, but will happen as quickly as possible. Funding from an anonymous donor is already in place for the Alfond expansion, which is expected to cost between $35 and $45 million.

The Cornell and Crummer projects, however, will depend entirely upon fundraising. The business school could cost between $50 and $60 million and the museum between $30 and $40 million, all of which must be raised through philanthropy.

At first glance, Cornwell notes, a hotel, a museum and a business school appear to have little in common. But, he adds, placing the trio of projects under the Innovation Triangle umbrella makes sense for a place as eclectic as Rollins.

“As an educational institution, we constantly strive to stimulate new learning paradigms and encourage the application of new ideas to complex problems,” Cornwell says. “Specifically, the Innovation Triangle highlights the intersections of art, business and interdisciplinary teaching and learning.”

Picture-Perfect Paintings

Henry Peter, a self taught artist known for the photographic quality of his paintings, has found collectors on four continent for his meticulous (and vivid) depictions of outdoor scenes. He describes his work as “simple and direct; free of artifice and superficial mannerisms.”

Henry Peter, a native of Burglengenfeld, Germany and a resident of Brevard County, is primarily a self-taught artist. Which is remarkable considering the photographic quality of his paintings, such as the image of the iconic exedra in Kraft Azalea Garden on this issue’s cover. 

As a 12-year-old in Engelwood, New Jersey, Peter recalls receiving a few lessons on color and theory from painter Margaret Stucki, a vehement realist who, ironically, moved to Brevard County in 1973 and taught art for Rollins College when it offered evening programs at Patrick Air Force Base.

“When I moved down here, I tried to get in touch with her but didn’t hear back,” says Henry of Stucki, who wrote a book denouncing contemporary art as “crud.” She died in 2017 — but would likely be pleased that her former pupil has garnered a large following with his meticulous (and vivid) depictions of outdoor scenes.

The first work by Henry to appear on the cover of Winter Park Magazine was a 2015 image of the Venetian Canal and the Palmer Avenue Bridge. Several dozen readers emailed to ask who had taken the beautiful photograph — which was, in fact, an oil painting.

Henry earned a degree in philosophy from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and after graduation apprenticed in a machine shop. But by the late 1980s, his paintings had begun winning regional and national awards. 

In 1993, Henry made his first trip to Florida, where he displayed his work at the Old Island Days Festival. He moved to Key West a decade later, then relocated to Titusville in 2008.

Henry’s paintings have been selected for the Top 100 in the prestigious Arts for the Parks competition, a program created by the National Park Academy of the Arts to benefit the National Park Conservation Alliance.

He was a mainstay at Key West’s Gingerbread Square Gallery for almost two decades and has been represented by the Fredlund Gallery in Winter Park. His paintings have found collectors on four continents.

Henry describes his work as “simple and direct; free of artifice and superficial mannerisms.” He enjoys being artistically unpredictable and applies his keen eye and steady hand to a broad range of subjects — not just landscapes.

Kraft Azalea Garden, a 5.2-acre enclave that hugs the shore of Lake Maitland along Alabama Drive, is open daily from 8 a.m. until dusk. The exedra — a word derived from the Greek “ex” (out) and “hedra” (seat) — is one of Winter Park’s most cherished symbols. 

The project was funded in 1969 by siblings Kenneth H. Kraft and Elizabeth Kraft Schweizer to honor George and Maud Kraft, their parents for whom the park is named. Its inscription reads: “Pause friend. Let beauty refresh the spirit.”

You can find Henry’s paintings on display at the Cocco & Salem Gallery in Key West, Palm Avenue Fine Arts of Sarasota and the Village Gallery in Orlando. 

The Calm Before The Storm

Miami Springs-based artist Linda Apriletti prefers Florida settings, and says she enjoys hearing that her images evoke a sense of peace and tranquility.

Plein air artist Linda Apriletti’s primary goal through her work “is to communicate the uncommon beauty found in nature.” The Miami Springs-based artist prefers Florida settings, and says she enjoys hearing that her images evoke a sense of peace.

Apriletti was recently in Central Florida for the 2018 Winter Park Paint Out, held by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. “April Showers,” the painting that adorns the cover of Winter Park Magazine, is a scene from the museum’s grounds, which overlook Lake Osceola. 

“I was scheduled to paint on the Polasek grounds that Monday morning,” she says. “It was a very overcast day, with threatening gray clouds and a 90 percent chance of rain.”

Apriletti figured she had a few hours of dry weather before things turned nasty. “I decided to go for it, and painted this cypress tree and the flower garden by the lake,” she adds. “The bright yellow of the flowers was a great complement to the gray sky that day.”

Although her college degrees are in accounting and taxation, Apriletti pursued her lifelong love of painting while employed as an accountant. She also honed her skills — first in pastels and later in oils — by attending workshops during her vacations. 

It was at a workshop in Rocky Mountain National Park that she discovered her passion for plein air painting. She launched a full-time career as an artist in 2011 — and never looked back.

“Painting outside is critical to helping me observe and understand patterns in nature,” she says. 

Much of Apriletti’s work focuses on Everglades National Park and Big Cypress Nature Preserve, where she has staged solo exhibitions. She was artist in residence at Big Cypress Nature Preserve in 2012. But she also paints in Maine and on Martha’s Vineyard.

Apriletti particularly likes palm trees as subjects. Luckily for her, inspiration is always close at hand — she has more than 25 species growing in her yard. 

Visit lindaapriletti.com to see more of her paintings.

Hoşgeldiniz! Bienvenidos!

Photography by Rafael Tongol

 

Winter Park’s restaurant scene is more international than ever. Take, for example, Bosphorous and Hunger Street Tacos, which celebrate the cultures and cuisines of Turkey and Mexico, respectively. The owners of Bosphorous are (above left, left to right) Chris Southern, Tammy Sexter and Doved Sexter. The owners of Hunger Street Tacos are (above right, left to right) Seydi, David and Joseph Creech. Seydi and Joseph are married; David is Joseph’s brother.

 

Hoşgeldiniz! That’s “welcome,” for our readers whose Turkish is a bit rusty. You’ll hear the word (pronounced hozh-gel-din-iz, with a hard “g”) when you walk into Bosphorous, the popular Turkish eatery on Park Avenue.

The owners are American. But they’ve steeped themselves in the vibrant culture of Turkey — and their passion for the country shows in the restaurant’s fresh, authentic and delicious fare.

Bosphorous — which now has additional locations in Lake Nona and Dr. Phillips, with a soon-to-debut outpost in the Hamlin community near Winter Garden — opened right after the 2004 hurricanes under the ownership of a New York couple who offered a menu of authentic dishes from their native Turkey. 

In 2009, the restaurant was bought by Tammy and Doved Sexter, both veterans of Darden. So they knew plenty about the operational side of the restaurant business. However, they knew very little about Turkey. 

Then they traveled to the country — and fell in love with it. “Everywhere we went, people greeted us with ‘hoşgeldiniz,’” says Tammy. “And the food was so wonderful.”

Tender cabbage leaves stuffed with freshly ground lamb and topped with tomato sauce and seasoned yogurt are a favorite at Bosphorous. Americans are often surprised at the creative use of yogurt in Turkish dishes.

The Sexters recall that locals were initially skeptical about trying Turkish cuisine. Tammy was still teaching, so Doved (pronounced Do-veed), worked the restaurant, standing on the sidewalk with a plate of chicken Adana, handing out samples and talking up the unfamiliar dish to passersby. 

It worked, and it continues to work. That’s why you can still find Doved standing outside the restaurant, plate in hand. Only these days, his sales job isn’t quite as difficult.

The Sexters — along with their partner Chris Southern — haven’t tinkered much with the menu, adding just a few dishes here and refining a few others there. “At its heart,” says Doved “it’s basically a kebab house — and we’re happy to keep it that way.” (Kebab is spelled in the more authentically Turkish way, “kebap,” on the menu.)

Turks have one of the healthiest diets in the world. Along the coastline, the fare is heavily dependent upon olive oil and fresh fish. Further inland, in Central and Eastern Anatolia, lamb and beef replace fish as staple proteins. Chicken also appears on Turkish tables, but never pork. 

If you visit Turkey, the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables make it appear as though you’ve stumbled upon the Garden of Eden — the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates are, after all, in Turkey — and the Turks do things with yogurt that turn even the pickiest eater into a glutton. 

Cacik (pronounced juh-jik) is a savory concoction of yogurt, garlic, chopped cucumber and mint served with lamb, beef and chicken. Haydari is a thick creamy yogurt with walnuts, dill and mint. Both are available on the Bosphorous menu and are as good as any you’ll find this side of Istanbul. 

You can’t get much more Turkish than these two dishes: succulent lamb shanks (above left) and shepherd’s salad (above right). Lamb is, of course, the main source of animal protein in Turkish cuisine, which also features an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. No wonder the Turks have one of the healthiest diets in the world.

Turkish food culture is ancient. The term Turkiye (land of the Turks or Turkmen) has only been in use since the 11th century, and the Turkish Republic did not come into being until 1923. Today’s Turks refer to the land east of the Bosphorous — a narrow strait separating European and Asian Turkey and joining the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara — as Anatolia. The name dates at least as far back as the cuneiform tablets written by the Hittites more than 4,000 years ago. 

And what were those Hittites writing about? Among other things, food. 

The Hittites are believed to have been the first to cultivate almonds, olives and apricots. They also may have been the first wine makers — although humans have found ways to become inebriated since they began walking upright, so who knows? 

Almonds and pistachios, both of which figure prominently in Turkish cuisine, are the only two tree nuts to be mentioned in the ancient religious texts accepted by Islam, Judaism and Christianity as, respectively, the Tevrat, the Torah and the Old Testament.

The Sexters love the antiquity, the flavors, the scents and the colors that embrace any visitor to Turkey — and they’ve brought back as much as they could. As they continue to travel, the Turkish character of the Bosphorous restaurants deepens.

Doved notes that the first commercial copper mine was in central Anatolia, and that copper is frequently used in the manufacture of Turkish tableware. Consequently, the Sexters installed copper-covered tabletops at Bosphorous. Like stainless steel, copper is naturally antimicrobial. 

“The health inspectors like it,” says Tammy. “It’s beautiful. It’s different — something you don’t see everywhere.”

That’s just one example of the ways in which, counterintuitively, the American owners have made Bosphorous even more Turkish than its prior Turkish owners had. So is the lavish hospitality, which starts with a hearty “hoşgeldiniz” and continues throughout your visit.

Handmade dolmas (above left) pair well with a fine Turkish wine (above right) sold exclusively to Bosphorous. The restaurant’s owners are American, but they’ve steeped themselves in all things Turkish. Their immersive approach has resulted in delicious fare that’s as authentic as anything you’ll find this side of Istanbul.

Says Doved: “Ironically, the Turkish couple who opened the restaurant had the concept and the menu, but they wanted to be more American-style restaurant owners.” 

Tammy has designed an elaborate training and evaluation system, with attention to detail that would put even the most obsessive among us to shame. While procedures are precisely designed and strictly observed, the hosts and servers are empowered to do what’s necessary to make a customer’s Bosphorous dining experience a memorable one.

Food production is centralized in a Winter Park commissary. Fresh-cut vegetables and salads are produced in the restaurants, but the breads, desserts and most of the entrees are produced in the commissary and distributed daily to the restaurants. 

“We make everything fresh,” says Doved. “We don’t freeze anything. We want the food to be of consistent quality. Having a central kitchen also enables us to circumvent a type of behavior among chefs who, when sharing a recipe, might omit an ingredient or alter a technique to ensure that no one else can make the dish as well as they do.”

The meat at Bosphorous is Halal certified, and lamb is purchased through a Costco wholesale distribution center. Costco, as the largest purchaser of lamb in the world, can provide Halal-certified meat on a consistent basis.

Lamb is, of course, the main source of animal protein in the Turkish diet. Lamb is cubed for shish kabob, minced for skewered lamb Adana and meatball-like köfte, and roasted for the döner kebob that cooks on a rotating vertical skewer. (The word “döner,” translated literally, means “to turn.”) 

There are several steps in the Halal-certification process. The animals must be grass-fed, antibiotic-free and killed humanely by someone certified to do it. A religious ceremony is performed and the carcass is thoroughly cleaned. 

Tammy notes that animals under stress release cortisone, which can make the meat tough. If the animal is calm, no cortisone is released into the animal’s muscle tissue and, therefore, none is ingested by the person who consumes it. 

Each week, Bosphorous butchers go through at least 1,500 pounds of lamb and 1,400 pounds of chicken, which is also Halal certified. During the winter holiday season and the Spring and Fall sidewalk art festivals, consumption is likely to double.

Doved says that even though the Dr. Phillips and Lake Nona restaurants are newer and larger, the Winter Park location will always be their flagship. 

“If you have to own a restaurant, in my opinion, this is the best kind to own,” says Tammy. “The thing I never get tired of hearing is how the locals love to bring their out-of-town guests.”

— Anne Mooney

Bosphorous, Winter Park
108 South Park Avenue
407-644-8609

Bosphorous, Lake Nona
6900 Tavistock Lakes Boulevard, Orlando
407-313-2506

Bosphorous, Dr. Phillips
7600 Dr. Phillips Boulevard, Orlando
407-352-6766
bosphorousrestaurant.com

 

It’s located in a small building, but you can’t miss Hunger Street Tacos. The bold murals are both eye catching and politically meaningful. The restaurant’s name was inspired by Avenida Toluca, a Mexico City neighborhood nicknamed La Calle del Hambre (“The Street of Hunger”). It’s teeming with taquerias — taco stands — on every block.

 

Establishing Street Cred

Talk about a wing and a prayer. When the Creech family’s dream restaurant location suddenly became available, they had to either take a pass or take the space before they were ready. At the time, all they had was an idea, three recipes and a catering tent.

The Creeches — after plenty of praying — decided to open Hunger Street Tacos on the sassy corner lot they coveted at Fairbanks and Formosa avenues. The building is familiar for its blissfully bold visibility and infuriatingly lousy parking. You’ll remember it as home of the original 4 Rivers Smokehouse, then the now-defunct B&B Junction.

Now, a year and a half after its debut, the restaurant is thriving, with a menu offering a gourmet spin on the kind of south-of-the-border street fare you’d find in Mexico City, says Joseph Creech, who owns the eatery with his wife, Seydi, and his younger brother, David. 

Street food, by definition, can be picked up and eaten sans utensils. So Hunger Street’s offerings include, of course, tacos, as well as quesadillas, huaraches, tlayudas, tlacoyos, tamales and tostadas. Burritos, adds Creech, are Tex-Mex and therefore verboten.

The attention-getting name was inspired by Avenida Toluca, a Mexico City neighborhood nicknamed La Calle del Hambre (“The Street of Hunger”). It’s teeming with taquerias — taco stands — on every block. 

“When Seydi was a young woman, she and her friends would go out dancing, then say, ‘Let’s go to Hunger Street’ to have a late-night snack,” Creech says. “The name just made sense.”

The Hunger Street menu features gourmet spins on humble south-of- the-border street fare. The chickpea tlacoyo, for example, is not only flavorful, it’s also vegan. Try it with a refreshing jar of white wine sangria, made with chardonnay, strawberry, lime and hot pequin chili pepper.

Seeking to visually distinguish their restaurant, the Creeches commissioned bold — and meaningful — murals for the building’s exterior. The image facing the street, for example, is of Bety Cariño, an advocate for the rights of indigenous populations in Mexico who was shot and killed in a 2010 paramilitary attack.

The family’s social consciousness comes naturally. Joseph Creech was born in Guadalajara to Presbyterian missionaries, but spent much of his childhood in Acapulco. David was born in the U.S., but also lived in Acapulco and Oaxaca before the family settled in Central Florida.

Still, as young men the brothers returned to Mexico as often as possible, absorbing the culture and savoring the cuisine — especially the kind of scratch-made street fare sold by marketplace hawkers. 

They later lived and worked for a time in Mexico City, where Joseph met Seydi, an environmental attorney. After his return to the U.S., the couple maintained a long-distance relationship for several years before tying the proverbial knot in 2005.

By 2013, all three were living in Lake Mary, going about their workaday lives. Seydi, feeling nostalgic, asked Joseph, the family cook, to prepare tacos de suadero — said to be the only type of taco that originated in Mexico City. He watched YouTube videos to learn the basics, then started experimenting. 

“Literally on the second batch we were like, ‘Wow, this is really good,’” Creech recalls. Enthused, they invited about 20 guests over to share another batch of the savory, pressure-cooked brisket, which was stuffed into corn tortillas with traditional toppings of cilantro, onion, salsa and lime.

Why not be adventurous and try something new on each visit to this creative Mexican eatery? You can’t go wrong with (clockwise, from top center) a squash blossom quesadilla; a combo plate that includes grilled cheese and brisket tacos; a chicken Tinga tostada; or a hibiscus and guacamole taco paired with a fried avocado taco. The savory brisket taco is the dish that inspired the Creeches to go into the restaurant business.

Friends encouraged the Creeches to make cooking their profession — and they were sorely tempted to do so, despite already having good jobs. Joseph worked in finance, David was a trainer for Chick-Fil-A and Seydi worked for a nonprofit organization translating Christian curriculum videos into Spanish.

Ultimately, they bought a $100 Gander Mountain tent and two cast-iron camping grills that heated to 800 degrees, then started a catering company. Among their first gigs was running the concession operation for the Maitland Little League. 

Along the way, they perfected that fateful brisket taco and added a brisket quesadilla and a mushroom quesadilla to their repertoire. To prepare for private parties, they rented time slots in the commissary kitchen at Orlando’s East End Market. 

“East End’s kitchen is a huge incubator for a lot of people, and we owe the people we met there for their ideas and feedback,” Creech says. The trio also pitched their tent at the Audubon Park Community Market every other Monday evening.

“We weren’t worrying about making a profit at that time,” says Creech. “All we cared about was brand recognition — about building a fan base that would finance our first operation.”

Their goal: to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant five years after opening the catering business. Inside of two years, however, 4 Rivers Smokehouse founder John Rivers, who had mentored the Creeches, told them that the location at which he had started his first restaurant, at Fairbanks and Formosa, had become available.

Uh-oh. Acting quickly, the Creeches presented their business plan to about 30 potential investors with the goal of raising $275,000. They didn’t reach the magic number right away, but were heartened enough by the response that they took a leap of faith and signed a six-year lease. The rest is history — albeit fairly recent history.

Today, the brisket taco for which Seydi had yearned is the No. 1 seller at Hunger Street. The less-authentic breaded and flash-fried avocado taco is popular, too, among both carnivores and vegans. 

Huger Street visitors order at the counter, then have dishes — including beer and sangria — delivered to outdoor tables. No one ever goes away feeling, well, hungry (or thirsty).

Another frequently ordered dish is more exotic: a bone marrow and mushroom sope — basically a cornmeal cake spread with cooked bone marrow then topped with beans and veggies. 

Chicharrón de queso, ubiquitous in Mexico City, draws raves for its appearance and its flavor. It’s an oversized roll of crispy gouda cheese that’s melted on a flattop grill. The cheese hardens when removed from the heat.

Hibiscus tacos — yes, they’re made with dried hibiscus flowers — are trendy in Mexico City these days, so they’ve been added to the menu as well. Says Creech: “This dish isn’t for everybody, but a lot of our customers really, really love it.” 

Although the restaurant is busier by the day, Hunger Street Tacos continues to offer catering services. The Creeches and their employees will happily tote that original catering tent to private homes and prepare brisket tacos, or perhaps wood-fired whole snapper like Creech grew up eating at the Acapulco beach. 

“We cook to order and provide food stations as requested,” Creech says. “We create menus that people will talk about for years after the party.”

The Creeches are also beginning to eye expansion opportunities — perhaps opening another restaurant that specializes in a different kind of Mexican cuisine.

For now, though, they’re living like the entrepreneurial restaurateurs they dreamed of becoming. One minute, they’re battling with a trash company that missed a dumpster pickup after a busy Cinco de Mayo weekend celebration. The next, they’re brainstorming ideas for new recipes and new ventures. 

It’s all done on a wing, a prayer and a passion. You can taste it. 

— Rona Gindin

Hunger street tacos
2103 West Fairbanks Avenue, Winter Park
321-444-6270
hungerstreettacos.com




Good Food, Honestly

Photographs by Rafael Tongol

Derek Perez (standing) and Brandon McGlamery, of Luma and Prato fame, are the adventurous culinary entrepreneurs behind Luke’s Kitchen + Bar in Maitland, which offers up tasty old-school fare.

"I’m not a glamour job kind of guy,” says Derek Perez. “I like to make honest food that’s not cheffed up.”

Say what? For a full decade, this 6-foot-5 hipster — with gouged earlobes and a sculpted beard — has been transforming luxury foods into works of culinary art at Luma on Park, the Avenue’s foodiest dining room.

From Luma’s exhibition kitchen, Perez pampered Winter Parkers with fanciful, inventive fare of the sort that defines “cheffed up.”

Today, without a whiff of irony, Perez waxes poetic about the hamburgers at Luke’s Kitchen + Bar in Maitland — you can just call it “Luke’s” — where he’s now executive chef. “It has no foams or gasses that cover it up,” he boasts. “It’s an honest, delicious burger.”

That burger — which is indeed honest and delicious — is a menu staple at Luke’s, which describes itself as “classic American.” There, Perez applies the advanced culinary skills he mastered at Luma to somewhat less lofty old-school fare.

That means guests of a certain age will get the chance to revisit with favorites from past decades: crab cakes and French dip sandwiches, prime rib dinners and — this is more exciting than it sounds — potato chips with onion dip.

The burger at Luke’s is to die for. “It has no foams or gasses that cover it up,” says Executive Chef Derek Perez. “It’s an honest, delicious burger.” It’s also a menu staple at the classic American eatery.

The menu is, in fact, chef driven if not cheffed up, considering Perez’s almost religious devotion to quality. And, meals are served in a fittingly sturdy building that locals remember as having been a Steak & Ale location for decades.

But this is no Steak & Ale. Guests are seated in gray-brown banquettes, while glass lampshades line the inviting bar. Together with a raw metal chandelier and a bit of swanky mid-century modern seating here and there, the interior is unpretentious but welcoming. A spacious patio invites alfresco dining.

Perez has taken a new direction in terms of cuisine, yet his employers remain the same. Luke’s is the third restaurant owned by Park Lights Hospitality Group, which brought Luma to the area in 2005 and the modern-Italian Prato seven years later.

James Beard regional semifinalist Brandon McGlamery is chef/partner, with responsibility for all three eateries, while Tim Noelke manages the managers. Brandon and Tim can be seen in all three restaurants regularly. Derek is always at Luke’s.

At Luke’s, what constitutes classic American cuisine is flexible — and we say that with unabashed glee. The chips-and-dip appetizer, for example, shame the ’60s version we’re accustomed to. In our home, Ruffles and a bowl of sour cream blended with dry Lipton onion soup mix were laid out whenever company arrived.

At Luke’s, however, the spuds are thinly sliced Idaho potatoes fried in-house and seasoned with truffle salt and essence. For the dip, crème fraiche — a frothy, tangy, sour cream-like wonder — is blended with chives, onion and garlic powders, “and a lot of love,” Perez says.

Luke’s rotisserie chicken is prepared on a $30,000 vertical rotisserie cooker, where the dripping fat from one glazes another until each bird is moist and ready for slicing and plating.

The crab cakes are straightforward. “It’s simply made with the very best crab you can possibly find,” he says. “There’s not a lot of filler.” The seared golden disks aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for.

Luke’s rotisserie chicken is a splurge compared to what you’d grab at the grocery store. Here, the chefs make a brine of peppercorns and mint, then let the raw poultry sit in what is essentially a mild mint tea for 24 hours. That way, the subtle flavor seeps all the way through the flesh.

Before cooking, the chicken is air-dried for at least half a day so the skin will be crispy. Only then are the birds positioned on the bell-like holders of a $30,000 vertical rotisserie cooker, where the dripping fat from one glazes another until each clucker is moist and ready for slicing and plating.

This gizmo is so advanced that McGlamery likens it to a Tesla.

But let’s get back to that burger. Perez and McGlamery are so keen on its perfection that they finish each other’s sentences while talking about its creation. Then again, they often finish one another’s sentences. That’s what happens when you’ve worked side-by-side with someone for 11 years.

The how-it’s-made conversation begins with Perez saying that “there are no magic tricks.” Then you hear about how the chefs tested 25 different meat blends before whittling it down to eight, then one. “Different muscles and textures work together for the best flavor,” McGlamery adds.

The winning combo involves a short rib — a special ribeye that’s trimmed between the bones when it’s frenched, says Perez, so it has high fat content — and a stew meat blend.

It’s Florida, after all, so you may choose to dine alfresco on Luke’s spacious patio, which features an indoor/outdoor bar. Lake Lily Park is just across U.S. 17-92.

That’s not all. “The dense muscle holds it all together, and we grind butter into it — unsalted — that gives it the sear that locks in the flavor, and makes it a moister, richer burger.”

I don’t remember if that last quote came from Perez or McGlamery. All I heard was a shared passion for burgers.

Luke’s has a wood-fired grill, and above that is a smokebox through which fish, shellfish and vegetables rotate. If the okra with sea salt, olive oil and lemon juice is on the menu, order it even if you dislike okra. It’s that tender and flavorful. Oysters, shishito peppers, chicken wings — you can’t go wrong.

For a lighter bite, check out the raw bar. In addition to oysters on the half shell, options might include shrimp cocktail, or yellowfin tuna on avocado toast with artichoke relish. All are the extreme level of fresh that you’d expect from this team.

Desserts are created by Brian Cernell, the pastry guru who wowed guests for years at Luma and Prato and now Luke’s as well. The hearty ice creams are especially satisfying. Key lime tart, banana pecan cake and other reinvented sweets rotate through the menu.

Like every new restaurant, Luke’s has had its misses. The twice-baked potato came and went unloved by the masses, sadly for those of us who hadn’t yet tried it. And the raw bar was far less popular than the chefs had hoped — so they’ve trimmed the offerings.

It’s hard to know where to begin when recommending what you ought to try at Luke’s, which boasts an inviting bar (above) in its unpretentious but welcoming dining room. There’s the okra with sea salt, olive oil and lemon juice (top); crab cakes that are actually made from crab (above center); and hearty ice cream (above right), if you have room for dessert.

But now that the restaurant is a year old, the team knows what guests like. They learn it daily, in fact. Every morning, they each receive a spreadsheet detailing every item that was sent back to the kitchen and comped the day before, along with an explanation.

“Everything is under a microscope,” Perez says, before McGlamery pipes in, “We listen to all the complaints, and we take it in.”

Often, customer feedback results in major changes. Guests requested brunch and a happy hour. Now, Luke’s has a large food and beverage happy hour menu seven days a week, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

There was also feedback that prices were too high. The chefs trimmed the numbers “without ever sacrificing quality,” McGlamery says.

Some aspects of Luke’s never change, though. “The sunsets are awesome,” Perez says, sitting on the 50-seat patio that faces Lake Lily across U.S. 17-92. He’s right about that.

Luke’s was a change for the Park Lights Hospitality folks, who wanted to open a third restaurant different enough that it wouldn’t impact business at Luma and Prato.

“We had the operations, the systems and the teamwork,” McGlamery notes. “This time, we went for food that is a lot more approachable. It’s good honest food.”

Honestly.


Luke’s Kitchen + Bar
640 S. Orlando Avenue, Maitland, 32751
(407) 674-2400
eatatlukes.com

The British Invasion

The City of Culture and Heritage is becoming increasingly popular with U.K. vacationers, according to the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, which is implementing programs specifically to entice visitors from across the pond.

It should come as no surprise that Orlando continues to break tourism records. But if you rarely leave the confines of Winter Park, you may believe that only the perpetual hot spots around the attractions and International Drive are impacted.

But maybe you’re not looking closely enough. Tourists are in Winter Park, alright — dining in our restaurants, shopping in our retail stores and wandering through our museums.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the aptly dubbed City of Culture and Heritage is becoming an increasingly popular draw for visitors from the U.K., according to anecdotal evidence and empirical data gathered by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce.

Not that Winter Park has anything on, say, London when it comes to culture and heritage. It just seems that the city’s Old World ambience — and laid-back vibe — offers a welcome change of pace, and a taste of home, for visitors from across the pond.

“It could be because we’re so different from what’s expected in Orlando,” says Jana Ricci, chair of the chamber’s executive committee. “In any case, in our strategic planning process several years ago, we began considering international tourism in a very serious and thoughtful way.”

The sheer numbers across the region appear to offer a priceless opportunity for a niche destination such as Winter Park.

About 68 million people visited Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties in 2016 — 2 million more than in 2015, according to figures released last August by Visit Orlando, the region’s tourism marketing agency. This year is on track to set another record, officials say.

Jana Ricci (above left), chair of the chamber’s executive committee, and Betsy Gardner Eckbert (above right), the organization’s president and chief executive officer, say that a concerted effort to reach U.K. vacationers in advance will pay immediate dividends for Winter Park’s shops, restaurants and cultural venues. Longer term, they say, some visitors will relocate or invest here. Photos by Rafael Tongol

Most — perhaps 90 percent — come from elsewhere in the U.S. But among international visitors, Canada and the U.K top the list. In 2016, more than 500,000 people from the U.K. — which encompasses England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — arrived in Central Florida on direct flights, according to Visit Orlando.

In the U.K., airlines are making the trip particularly convenient.

There are a total of nine direct flights daily from the U.K. — including Manchester, Gatwick, Glasgow and Dublin — to Orlando International Airport or Orlando Sanford International Airport. Another direct flight is planned from London Heathrow Airport.

So, the actual number of U.K. visitors to Central Florida could be even higher, since many travelers take connecting flights and wouldn’t be included in Visit Orlando’s count.

Betsy Gardner Eckbert, president and chief executive officer of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce since 2016, wanted more specific numbers. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the U.K., not Canada, would top the list of international visitors to Winter Park — but no one could be sure.

She began by determining where drop-ins to the chamber’s Winter Park Welcome Center at 151 Lyman Avenue come from.

Over the course of a year, chamber staffers found that 26 percent of several thousand Welcome Center visitors were from other countries. No big surprise there. But of that 26 percent, more than half — 53 percent, to be exact — were from the U.K, with Brazil and Canada following behind.

“It was really sort of a shock,” adds Ricci, who also directs marketing for the Mayflower Retirement Community. “You see more about Canada and even Brazil when looking at the numbers for the region.”

In addition, analytics showed that in 2017, the chamber’s website received more than 5,500 visitors from the U.K. Not huge numbers, perhaps — but encouraging for a small city operating in the shadow of Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios Florida and other tourism behemoths.

“Imagine if we could get just 10 percent of U.K. visitors,” says Gardner Eckbert. “Just 10 percent. What a huge impact that would have.” Best of all, she says, U.K. visitors like to take their vacations in the summer — when business is slowest in Winter Park.

Those pondering vacations who find the chamber’s website will learn about the city’s dining, shopping, history and accommodations as well as its world-class cultural attractions.

And they’ll get a video invitation from Gardner Eckbert, who offers trip-planning assistance from the chamber’s concierge staffers. “I think people from the U.K. who come to Winter Park are looking for a different kind of experience,” adds Gardner Eckbert. “They want an unhurried, no-hassle environment.”

Indeed, laid-back Winter Park provides quite a contrast to the hubbub of the area’s theme parks. The city gives off a European-meets-Mediterranean vibe that makes U.K. visitors feel comfortable.

And some tourism experts have warned that Central Florida’s increasingly stupendous theme parks — and the massive crowds they draw — may ultimately make the region less desirable to visitors. In other words, there can actually be too much of a good thing.

In an interview last August with the Orlando Sentinel, Youcheng Wang, an associate dean at the University of Central Florida and a professor at the Rosen School for Hospitality Management, said it’s unwise to position the region only as “the world capital of theme parks.”

“I think you have a problem if you continue to do that,” Wang said. “That’s not a reflection of reality. Orlando is much bigger than that.”

Last November, Debbie Potter, marketing director of the Alfond Inn, along with the chamber’s Gardner Eckbert and Keller, talked up Winter Park to tour operators and other influencers at the World Travel Market in London. Local businesses and cultural venues picked up most of the tab for the trip.

Yet, absent a large marketing budget, how can Winter Park ensure that it gets its share of those 500,000 U.K. visitors who may be suffering from sensory overload after days of navigating Tourist World?

Gardner Eckbert — as is her style — insists that partnerships and collaborations are the way to go. She has been a proponent of moving the organization toward becoming less event focused and more oriented toward quantifiable, ongoing programs that will generate business for chamber members.

Along those lines, plenty is happening behind the scenes.

Last year, the chamber’s Welcome Center became a Certified Visitor Information Center through a program operated by Visit Florida, the statewide tourism promotion agency. (Visit Florida is now a separate entity, unaffiliated with Visit Orlando.)

Among other things, earning certification means that a link to the chamber’s website now appears on the heavily trafficked Visit Florida website. There are only five certified centers in Central Florida — and all but Winter Park’s are in the tourist corridor.

Then, in November of last year, Gardner Eckbert and Katherine Keller, the chamber’s director of marketing and communications, joined Visit Florida in a booth at the World Travel Market in London, which is attended by tour packagers, travel agents and travel writers.

Picking up the $10,000 tab were the City of Winter Park, the Alfond Inn, the Park Avenue Merchants Association, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, the Winter Park History Museum and the City Arts & Culture Subcommittee.

“We want to get Winter Park added to specific U.K. travel itineraries,” says Gardner Eckbert, who — fortunately for the chamber — lived in London and was an entrepreneur there from 2009 to 2014. “We want to reach people before they get to Central Florida. We don’t want to count on people discovering us by accident.”

In January, she and Keller traveled to Fort Lauderdale to attend the Florida Huddle, a trade show for domestic and international tour operators. Again, they pitched Winter Park as a relaxing and culture-filled experience for those wishing to take a break from Mickey, Harry and Shamu.

Another big plus for Winter Park, Gardner Eckbert says, is its historic — and recently renovated — municipal golf course, which is ranked among Links magazine’s Top 10 nine-hole layouts in the U.S.

Best of all, Winter Park is a bargain. Many of its cultural attractions have minimal (or no) admittance fees. And, of course, it costs nothing to stroll along Park Avenue, relax in Mead Garden or Central Park, or tool around tree-shaded historic neighborhoods in a rental car.

“The average international tourist stays in Central Florida for 12 days,” she notes. “With the price of passes, it becomes extremely costly to spend all that time at the theme parks — especially when Winter Park offers such a major bang for the buck.”

Without question, Gardner Eckbert is happy when a tourist from the U.K. — or from anywhere else, for that matter — spends a few days in the city and patronizes local merchants and restaurateurs. But she tends to take a longer view.

“We want to convert these visitors from people who spend money in our community to people who invest in our community,” she says.

Perhaps that means buying a vacation home. Or sending children to Rollins College — an academically solid liberal arts school with one of the most beautiful campuses in the U.S.

Medical tourism is also likely to increase with expansions at Winter Park Memorial Hospital and the opening later this year of the Center for Health & Wellbeing, a partnership between the hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation.

As soon as they log on, visitors to the chamber’s website see this inviting image, which embodies Winter Park’s European-meets-Mediterranean vibe. It’s the Palmer Avenue Bridge, which spans the Flamingo Canal. “We see tourism as an economic driver,” says Gardner Eckbert. “Not just as a result of attracting more first-time visitors — but also when they decide to come back.” Photo by Winter Park Pictures (winterparkpictures.com)

Some visitors may relocate permanently and impact the local economy by starting new businesses. “We see tourism as an economic driver,” says Gardner Eckbert. “Not just as a result of attracting more first-time visitors — but also when they decide to come back.”

Jay Goodrow is Florida concierge manager at Virgin Holidays, which is the No. 1 tour operator for U.K. residents visiting Orlando. He says Winter Park boosters are smart to position the city as a quaint and calming refuge.

“We’ve brought tens of thousands of British families here for more than three decades,” says Goodrow. “Many customers return more than once. A key tactic is showcasing just how much more there is to the region than the theme parks — as Winter Park is doing.”

The chamber is also working to secure promotional partnerships with orlandoattractions.com, a website that offers a travel app, and the TUI Group, a huge travel and tourism company headquartered in Germany.

Taktik Enterprises, an Orlando-based restaurant marketing company, now includes Winter Park restaurants on its VIP Dine 4 Less and Kids Eat Free cards, which are distributed to U.K. tourists through Virgin Holidays, British Airways, Orbitz and Thomas Cook Group, among others.

Encouraged by early successes, the chamber is considering formation of a tourism task force that will kick all these efforts up yet another notch.

Local businesspeople think it’s jolly good that the chamber is staking a claim on international tourism.

“Having several businesses on Park Avenue, I’m so excited that the chamber is making an effort to put our great city, which has so much to offer, out to the international market,” says Joanne McMahon, owner of 310 and Blu on the Avenue — both restaurants — and the Partridge Tree Gift Shop.

“We’ve already seen an increase in traffic from this. I’m looking forward to what else is to come.”

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