The year is 1528, and Juan Ortiz has only minutes to live.
Captured by Timucuan natives in the thick Florida scrub near Tampa Bay, the Spanish explorer is moments from execution for trespassing when the chief's daughter, a maiden named Ulele, throws herself upon his body and begs for her father's mercy. Ortiz's life is spared. And Ulele's name graces the still-bubbling spring that once was Tampa's first source of drinking water.
Not a bad story.
What Richard Gonzmart hopes is that the legend's emotional power and its link to Florida's rich and delicious past will lure customers to his new restaurant, Ulele, on the Hillsborough River in the historic Tampa Water Works building.
The project could exceed $2 million for the renovation of the city's original red-brick water plant, installation of a kitchen, hazardous-materials removal and transformation into an indoor-outdoor restaurant. The idea is part of a growing trend among restaurants and bars using history to make an emotional connection with patrons.
That trend is rooted in another: The return to using ingredients grown by local farmers as a way of sending customers the message that the menu offers authentic flavors native to the restaurant's location.
You can see history in places such as Tampa's Bern's Steak House, where founder Bern Laxer's history of searching the world for the best wines and ways to prepare food are part of the restaurant's legend. It's in the classic cocktails served at Ciro's Speakeasy in South Tampa using generations-old recipes. In Winter Park, Cask & Larder uses the building's basis as feed-store-turned-illicit-Prohibition-era-brewery to flavor its gastro pub sensibility.
Tampa history also flavors the labels of Cigar City Brewery, which named its Jai Alai IPA and Bolita Double Nut Brown Ale for Tampa gambling traditions.
"In marketing, one of the most powerful tools is the use of story to make an emotional connection," said Aaron Allen, founder of the Orlando-based restaurant consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates. "Food with a story is more valuable than food without a story. It conjures curiosity, makes it immediately stand out. Guests then go out and tell that story to others."
Gonzmart knows about using history to attract customers. As president of the family-owned Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, he and his brother Casey heavily emphasize the eatery's 107-year history. Family photos are featured throughout the Ybor restaurant and its seven affiliates. Behind-the-scenes stories of dishes are shared on the menu. House brands of rum and whiskey are named for relatives and friends. The restaurant's signature item, the 1905 salad, takes its title from the year the restaurant started as a shop on Seventh Avenue.
The challenge with the new project is to walk the line of serving local ingredients in a modern way inside a historic building next to a natural landmark. Go too modern with the food or the décor and you risk wasting the historic assets of the property. Stay too traditional and customers may think the restaurant is dated and out of step.
For Gonzmart, the Ulele project is even more personal. In their early childhood, he and brother Casey grew up in their grandparents' home, a stone's throw from the Water Works building.
"My grandmother's nickname was Lele." he said. "What kind of coincidence is that?"
The trend toward locally sourced restaurant ingredients became chic nationally about five years ago. Food fanatics worried about the carbon footprint of industrial farming urged a rebellion against giant food service delivery operations bringing in product from around the world.
Gonzmart intends to use local sources, but he'll take it further — reaching back for inspiration to the foods eaten by the native tribes that once lived along Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough River. That includes crab and oysters, which once were plentiful along mangroves and shorelines. Although the menu is in the planning stages, the restaurant's design calls for an open grill indoors that will roast oysters using orangewood as a heat source.
And because pigs were introduced to North America through Tampa Bay, Gonzmart is testing everything from pork shanks to double-boned tomahawk pork chops with jalapeno pear dipping sauces.
Inside the building, most of the water utility's remnants will be removed, but the wood beams of the cathedral ceiling will remain, as will the hand-cranked windows used for cooling the building. A two-level dining room mezzanine will not cover the exposed interior brick but will use wall anchors and appear to be floating.
Plans also call for a rooftop garden, where herbs and other fresh ingredients will be grown for use in the kitchen and bar. Project manager Keith Sedita is exploring everything from hydroponic gardening to vertical methods that include coconut husks as a plant foundation.
Also, Gonzmart plans to partner with Cigar City to create a Tampa-themed beer sold exclusively at Ulele. He pondered building his own brewing operation using water from Ulele Spring and may do so in the future.
One advantage to wrapping the concept in a historical context: Restaurants that do so tend to attract more affluent customers. Another: A historical narrative makes the food taste better, Allen said, because it conveys wholesomeness and quality associated with "the good ol' days."
"It's actually proven neuroscience and sensory branding," he said.
Such moves appeal most to customers who seek authenticity, said Dean Small, president and founder of Synergy Consultants in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
History-based restaurant concepts work best when they are chef-driven or when they are the idea of a passionate owner who can keep the concept relevant to the market by using as many local vendors as possible.
"It not only gives the restaurant a sense of purpose, but it connects with people on an emotional level," Small says. "Restaurants that can make that connection tend to be more successful than those that don't."
He isn't aware of any U.S. restaurants where the locally sourced concept extends to pre-Columbian times.
"What people are looking for in food today is authenticity," he said. "Nothing is more authentic than history."