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The food chain: Deli follows development, feeds new tastes

A bacon and eggs place is sold and flipped into an omelets with chorizo restaurant.

By ROBERT KING
Published February 15, 2004

HERNANDO BEACH - With a habit of conjuring his own ingredients and a resume that includes two years at Tampa's swank Samba Room, Brian Alvarez is a chef whose food would not have been found in Hernando Beach a few years ago.

Alvarez, a 26-year-old graduate of a culinary arts school in Palm Beach, is a guy who puts red wine and cashews in chicken salad, grinds his own pepper and serves plantains as a side dish.

About a year ago, Alvarez and his father, Bob, bought the Hernando Beach Deli - an established restaurant on Shoal Line Boulevard that offered more standard approaches to sandwiches, subs and hamburgers.

After some remodeling and retooling, the Alvarezes reopened as HB Gourmet Deli & Catering and began introducing shrimp boat fishermen and other locals to cilantro on steak sandwiches and omelets spiced up with chorizo, a pork sausage seasoned with cayenne.

"It's just goofy and good," said Carlo Zarcone, co-owner of an auto body shop a few doors down from the deli. "They're consistent. Everything is fresh. They've added that little Cuban zip to it. It's more gourmet. They run a different special every day."

People who have been eating in Hernando Beach for years say their community is ready for the new flavors offered by the deli and the nearby Bare Bones Fish & Steak House.

Richard Doyle, a local Realtor, owned and ran the deli before the Alvarezes came along. For 20 years, he said, the place endured as a bacon, toast and eggs place for breakfast and as a hot dog, hamburger and salad joint for lunch.

But Doyle said that the growth in Hernando Beach - and the affluence of its new residents - has ushered in a new day and that the population is ready for the twist the Alvarezes provide.

"I think it's time," Doyle said. "There was always a need for the basic hamburger and hot dogs. But they have upscaled it a little. And the beach area has definitely gone to a community where people are willing to pay for good food."

No one is expecting Shoal Line Boulevard to turn into a new restaurant row. For one thing, the regulations for building in a flood zone make new commercial construction costly. But the Alvarezes went in and remodeled an existing building.

More importantly, they remodeled the menu.

Far from the hot dog days, HB Gourmet Deli is now catering filet mignon and salmon dinners to birthday parties for 25 people. It served pork brazed with chapote - a Mexican persimmon - to a homeowners association Christmas party for 125.

On Sunday mornings, people line up out the door for a breakfast menu that - along with the staples of eggs and bacon - includes peanut butter cashew waffles, apple-cinnamon pancakes and breakfast sandwiches on Cuban bread.

Longtime Hernando Beach resident Leslie Tomlinson lives within walking distance of the deli. She was one of its first customers. Now she works there.

"It's just nice to have a place with a little culture and flavor," Tomlinson said. "You don't have to go off the beach to get a taste of culture."

The Alvarezes, who live in Carrollwood, wanted to go into the restaurant business together.

Bob, who was a sales manager for a car dealership in Tampa, saw the potential for growth in Hernando Beach. But Brian was skeptical about whether the area was ready for the type of food he wanted to serve. In the end, his youthful confidence kicked in.

"If I cook it, they will come," he decided.

Business started out slow and remained that way through the summer. But Bob Alvarez said business has grown at a clip of 15 percent to 20 percent a month since the fall.

"It's been received very well. These people have been exposed to good food," said Bob Alvarez. "These are middle- to upper-class folks."

Aside from the new beach dwellers, the deli has worked hard to win over people whose tastes are not as adventuresome as the folks who have moved in from far-off places. Bob has let locals sample the original soups his son serves up each day - a culinary test drive that pays homage to the car salesman he remains at heart.

Brian enjoys hearing the positive feedback from residents who have been eating his food. Proudly, he boasts that "some of our best clientele are the shrimpers."

Now, people from Spring Hill who live across that invisible wall known as U.S. 19 are starting to find the deli. And Bob Alvarez, car salesman turned restaurant owner, is looking for his own place to live in Hernando Beach.

"I'm nothing but positive," he said. "I see nothing but bright stars."

- Robert King can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 06:48:37]


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