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Food & Dining

Spotlight stokes hunger of fans of local diners

Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:17 PM

Two weeks ago, Chris Rose hired three new kitchen workers for his EATS American Grill on South Dale Mabry Highway.

He is preparing for an onslaught.

On Monday night, the Cooking Channel's spicy foods show "Heat Seekers" will introduce America to Rose's off-the-menu 5 Pepper Sauce, previously known only through word of mouth from those who tried the mouth-bomb of jalapeno, habanero, Scotch bonnet, Thai and ghost peppers on their Midwest BLT sandwich.

The show's producers and stars, Aaron Sanchez and Roger Mooking, warned Rose to be prepared for a flood of new customers. One airing could boost foot traffic up to 60 percent, they said. The Bay-area episode also will include Crabby Bill's in Indian Rocks Beach and Nitally's Thai-Mex Cuisine in St. Petersburg.

In the past six months, the area has become a darling of food and travel cable channels. Owners of restaurants featured on such programs as "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" on Food Network and "Man v. Food Nation" on the Travel Channel say business skyrocketed after the national spotlight shined on them.

Later this year, the Cooking Channel show "Eat Street" is expected to do the same for the area's growing food truck community, which includes the popular Fire Monkey, Taco Bus and Wicked 'Wiches vehicles.

For Rose, preparing for the expected flood of spice aficionados included a frantic search for ingredients to make additional 5 Pepper Sauce. He exhausted the local grower who usually supplies him in season with ghost peppers. He had to tap resources in California and South America that still are growing peppers hot enough to torture the taste buds.

"We're going to get so much exposure," Rose said. "I've told my staff that we have one shot to introduce EATS American Grill to them. We have only one chance to get it right."

That sentiment is echoed by Larry Munch, owner of Munch's Restaurant & Sundries in St. Petersburg. Already a popular spot for breakfast and lunch, Munch is used to having customers huddle in his small lobby waiting for a table or seat at the counter.

But after "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" host Guy Fieri showcased Munch's Texas Hash, fried chicken, grilled pork chops, chipped beef, and shrimp and grits, the waiting line extended out the door, down the sidewalk and around the building.

Munch keeps a U.S. map behind the counter with pins marking the hometowns where customers saw the quirky restaurant on "Triple D." They occupy every state but Mississippi. ("I guess they don't have TV there," he jokes.) Fifteen countries are represented with slips of paper scrawled with names like Rome, London and Lima. The show airs in 56 countries.

Last week, a charter pilot and his son flew from Grand Bahama Island after seeing the show. After landing at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, they took a taxi to Munch's, ate lunch, got back in the taxi and flew back home.

"It happens all the time," Munch said while ringing up the check for customers Glenna Fasold and Ray Toth of Prince Edward Island in Canada.

The snowbirds wintered for 20 years in Largo, never knowing about Munch's until they watched the segment back home in September. Last week was their second trip for lunch. Fasold got the fried green tomatoes. Again.

"We would never have found it without the show," Toth said.

Destination dining brought a group of 11 from Salt Lake City to Vicky Doble's Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Ybor City earlier this year. The group, which vacations together annually, saw the brew pub's mussels, meatloaf and chicken wings on Fieri's show and chose Tampa as a result. The show boosted business 40 percent during what otherwise would have been slow months.

Doble says Fieri called the restaurant about a month ago to check that all was well.

"He's not a megastar," she said. "He comes off as a normal person."

The restaurants get new surges whenever spots are rebroadcasted because the shows constantly repeat on the cable channels. And since many shows have their own iPhone apps with locations of restaurants that have been on the show, some customers are arriving without having ever watched the segments.

"I call it the gift that keeps on giving," said Jackie Schonowski, co-owner of Keegan's Seafood Grille in Indian Rocks Beach.

Fieri filmed the grilled octopus, parmesan encrusted grouper cheeks over linguine and the seafood gumbo at Keegan's in the fall of 2007. Schonowski and her husband, John, bought the 26-year-old restaurant from previous owners in 2008. Like Munch's, the line of hungry customers extended out the front door.

"It aired again a week or so ago," she says. "For the next day or so, we were overwhelmed again. It's amazing. People really follow what he says."

For the Taco Bus, 2011 was a bonanza, with "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" and "Man v. Food Nation" shooting in the same week last February and "Eat Street" taping in October. Owner Rene Valenzuela also was invited to be on Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race" but declined due to the three-month time commitment.

Larry Munch now is aiming at luring "Man v. Food Nation." He uploaded a parody of "Triple D" to YouTube to get Fieri's attention. Now he hopes Adam Richman will belly up to Munch's breakfast challenge: one dozen eggs, one pound of bacon, one loaf of bread, 10 pounds of home fries and all the coffee you can drink.

"My dad started that 50 years ago," Munch said. "It's the potatoes that get you."

jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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