Culinary Initiative Poised to Pick Up Steam as Awareness Spreads
by PAUL CATALA
Polk County is cooking up something good, and now there’s a plan to use that recipe to put heads in beds and forks in mouths, all while highlighting and honoring the county’s unique agricultural heritage.
Visit Central Florida (VCF), Polk County’s official tourism and sports marketing organization, works to promote Polk County as a tourist destination. Now, the organization is ramping up its Polk County Culinary Initiative to bring agricultural producers and restaurant proprietors together in a more immediate relationship while highlighting Polk County’s longtime agricultural position to market the county as a culinary destination.
Research by Visit Florida — the state’s official tourism marketing agency — shows that localized “farm-to-fork experiences” are the highest rated family activities for tourists.
The Polk initiative intends to capitalize on that trend, instilling a farm-to-fork experience in everything from brew pubs to high-end restaurants. The initiative’s primary goal is to create lasting, memorable culinary experiences.
The organization is in the early steps of creating a network to connect farmers and food producers with restaurants looking for locally grown ingredients for their dishes.
Julia Davis, head of project development for Black Sheep Farms in Fort Meade, says she sees the ability to cater directly to cooks and chefs as the most important aspect of the concept.
When you’re running and operating a hydroponic farm like Black Sheep Farms, it’s essential to get fresh produce directly to clients. Davis says Polk County Culinary Initiative has helped broaden business for the company and farming in general across Central Florida.
Black Sheep Farms is a vertical-growth hydroponic farm currently specializing in lettuce and other leafy greens. Davis says the concept allows Black Sheep Farms the ability to cater “100 percent” to what a chef requests.
“The chef can pretty much have his own garden; we are in essence the garden for the chef,” says Davis, who adds that the farm produces up to 1,000 head of lettuce each week.
Kris Keprios, VCF senior tourism sales and marketing manager, says they are working to get the idea off the ground by increasing conversation within the ag and restaurant community. An initial meeting, held at Harmony Events in Bartow, was key in moving the initiative forward, as well as facilitating discussion and awareness. That meeting brought together farmers, restaurant owners, and managers, to brainstorm the possibilities and explore options.
According to Keprios, there are three pillars that hold up the initiative: “farm-to-fork,” “barbecue” and “culinary experiences.”
In Florida and all over the South, barbecue is one of the most popular dishes to connect family and friends. In Polk County, VCF has partnered Chad Ward at Whiskey Bent BBQ Supply to be what Keprios calls, the official “Czar of Char.” He will be a brand ambassador for Visit Central Florida. Ward is helping spearhead VCF’s “Triple Crown of BBQ,” which will span the three popular annual barbecue festivals: Lakeland’s Pigfest, Winter Haven’s Smoke on the Water, and Haines City’s Ribs on the Ridge.
Polk County is the only county in Florida where there are three top-level Kansas City Barbecue-judged events, so increasing the exposure of cattlemen to competitors and peers is a crucial part of the farm-to-fork push. The overall winner from those three barbecue events will be the “Triple Crown Winner.”
Curating the Experience
“One of the most popular aspects of eating locally is the farm-to-fork experience. To help further this aspect, we’re partnering with Central Florida Ag News and FDACS to create a website that will allow producers and creators to share information – for example, who has strawberries and other crops,” Keprios says.
That website, https://flfarmtoyou.com, will serve as a directory of what commodities are being produced throughout the county. Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to create a free profile on the website so that restaurants can identify local farms and explore what they have to offer.
In addition, VCF has created the Good Food Polk website, which aims to increase local food scene awareness.
Keprios says Polk County is “blessed” to have so many places to eat and take in different culinary experiences.
“From Born and Bread to Harry’s Old Place, from citrus to cattle and beyond, as well as a storied culinary history — a la Chalet Suzanne — we’re highlighting all of this for marketing purposes, using the tagline Rooted in Flavor.’ ”