Meet the food entrepreneurs at 22 South: Top Left, Chef Melly (Three Generations), Ray Milton (Ray’s Vegan Soul), Bryan and William Gravely (Better Way BBQ); Bottom Left, Lan Mai (Shokkan Sushi), Ajna Adams and Naomi Richardson ( St. Pete Bowls) and Dean Hudson (Irie Mon Jamaican Grill)
By Courtney Amos, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — The Manhattan Casino, with its rich history and cultural icon status in St. Pete’s Black community, will soon enter into a new chapter of existence as a food hall, co-working hub, and event space.
The Callaloo Group is behind this newest reincarnation at the historic location. In 2017, the group acquired the space from the city after a battle for the lease between themselves and the Manhattan Casino Legacy Collective.
Since then, the Callaloo Group has lost two of its three founders. Ramon Hernandez stepped down from the project after the closure of Callaloo’s self-titled restaurant at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just this February, former Tampa Buccaneers football player and co-founder Vincent Jackson died suddenly.
Mario Farias, the remaining member of the group, is now in partnership with Pastor G. Gregg Murray of Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church and Leigh Fletcher and Tina Fischer from Rising Tide Innovation Center. Together, they conceptualized how to revamp the space.
“Here, you have seven different cuisines,” said Farias, director of development for Callaloo, who organized the food hall. “Within those seven cuisines is a variety that’s huge. And so why wouldn’t it succeed?”
Each vendor is a local and minority-owned small business. Ajna Adams, who co-founded St. Pete Bowls with her daughter, Naomi Richardson, said their business started last October after they were laid off from their jobs during the pandemic. St. Pete Bowls will operate a couple of times a week and offer up fresh fruit bowls.
Dean Hudson, the founder of Irie Mon Jamaican Grill, got his start in 2018. Born of Jamaican descent, he promises delicious, authentic, and made-with-love dishes to his prospective patrons.
Meanwhile, Ray Milton of Ray’s Vegan Soul has more than 30 years of experience in the food industry and grew up in St. Pete. Melissa Gardner (Chef Melly) of Three Generations food truck, too, is already well-known in the community for her take on southern cuisine.
The Gravely Brothers, William and Bryan, will tantalize tastebuds with Better Way BBQ, and Lan Mai will be serving up sushi, poke bowls, and burritos at Shokkan Sushi.
Rounding it out, Callaloo’s own restaurant, VJ’s, is a brand new concept created for the location. It will feature American fare with a twist in honor of Vincent Jackson and the integral role he played in the community and the food hall development.
Other than Ray’s Vegan Soul, which previously had another location, this will be the first brick and mortar location for each of the vendors.
The location will also operate as a staging ground for Callaloo and Rising Tide Innovation Center’s incubator program. This initiative is designed to give local culinary talent the working space to expand their business or begin one, hopefully.
As 22 South Food Hall opens, this first wave of vendors will act as the inaugural class for the program. Subsequent cohorts will start on a smaller scale. It will offer courses, experience, and opportunities to community members hoping to break into the industry.
“It’s people that already have that desire,” Farias said, “and we’re here to cultivate that desire into something of monetary gain for them and to create a sort of pride.”
If all goes according to plan, these individuals in the subsequent classes will eventually cycle out of the program and into the food hall or their own spaces, whether that be a food truck, a brick-and-mortar location, or a catering service. New food entrepreneurs can then be cycled in.
All vendors will operate out of a shared kitchen and coordinate under one executive chef, who will work to make sure that food ordered from different vendors still makes it out to the table all at once.
Meanwhile, the upstairs of the two-story building will serve a dual purpose. Some of this space has been designated as part of the collaborative working area. The Jordan Dance Hall banquet room, also located upstairs, will be used to host various events. The room can hold up to 300 people and is furnished with a DJ booth and plenty of seating.
The space outside the building is also being put to use. Every Tuesday at 4 p.m., the lot outside the Manhattan Casino is utilized for a farmer’s market organized by south St. Pete resident Nikkol Patton. The intent is that this will be a step towards trying to alleviate food scarcity in the area.
Farias hopes that by encouraging commerce and events, and keeping the participating businesses local, he can preserve the legacy of Elder Jordan Sr., who built the Jordan Dance Hall – which would eventually come to be known as the Manhattan Casino – in 1925.
Jordan Sr.’s legacy also includes advocating for and building Jordan Elementary, access to Spa Beach — the only beach in St. Petersburg for African Americans before desegregation — a bus line for the Black community before integration, and the donation of land to the City of St. Petersburg for the building of the Jordan Park housing complex.
During the height of Jim Crow St. Pete, the Manhattan Casino became the only spot for the Black community to gather and notable Black artists to perform.
The history and significance of the site run deep and is something that Farias said he wants to honor.
“The location has a very special vibe to it,” said Adams of St. Pete Bowls. “You can almost feel the history there when you walk through the doors.”
Though the location was designated as a historic landmark by the city in 1994, subsequent uses for the space struggled to take hold. There is no doubt that all eyes will be watching to see what becomes of the space with such an important history.
“We are hopeful that the community and those around it will be open to this amazing concept that is coming and are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the 22 South Food Hall,” said Hudson of Irie Mon Jamaican Grill.
The food hall is slated to open April 30 and is currently hiring for front and back-of-house positions via in-person inquiries. Updates can be found on Facebook.