The Bern's legend: Separating fact from fiction
The myths loom large when it comes to Bern's Steak House. The extravagant South Tampa palace of premium beef and fine wines that was established more than 50 years ago by pioneering restaurateur Bern Laxer is so over the top in price and presentation that its legend as one of the country's top steakhouses adds new layers every year. Customers frequently ask where Bern's keeps its cows, assuming that the delicious, premium cuts could only come in-house from the restaurant, which once kept live fish in tanks inside the kitchen. (The restaurant keeps no livestock. The fish tanks were dismantled years ago because the demand exceeded the supply of fish.) Others swear they've descended deep underground during tours into the steak house's cavernous, climate-controlled cellar, the same one where a $30,000 bottle of Chateau Latour from 1947 was found last year. (Because of Florida's bathtub-shallow water table, the floor drops a grand total of about two feet.)Laxer's reputation as a master of details who had a fierce focus on quality no doubt inspires the imagination. A decade after his death, the touches he left on the restaurant, from the wine-barrel booths in the dessert room to the unconventional dining room and kitchen layouts, are so intimate that some customers ask to meet him. Occasionally the restaurant has to clear up its own story, such as this month, when it changed the menu and website to correct inconsistencies about ingredients it serves in its meals. Some misconceptions come from out of the blue, like the Internet website claim that Bern's gives customers free dessert on their birthday. (It doesn't.) Others are built on fact. Yes, Bern's and its modern-menu companion SideBern's, on South Howard Avenue, both utilize an 8-acre farm in Town 'N Country off Waters Avenue. It was built by Laxer three decades ago to generate vegetables for the steak house. The farm is in the process of relocating to new property across the street. And, yes, trainees must work at the farm as part of their baptism into Bern's culture. But even the farm is subject to mythology. Over the years, staff was rumored to be required to work a year on the farm before they could even think about dealing with the public, when new hires actually work a total of 40 hours during their year-long training, weeding, planting and harvesting as needed. For Laxer's son, David, who inherited the family's restaurant mantle after his father's death, correcting public perceptions is a full-time job. "People take that one thing and it snowballs," he said. "It's like people coming here and asking, 'Where do you raise your cattle?' We don't do that." While acknowledging the steak house benefits from its larger-than-life legend, Laxer becomes all the more frustrated at published examples of what he sees as inaccuracies in the story. A front-page story published May 20 in the St. Petersburg-based Tampa Bay Times took the restaurant to task for what it said were "embarrassing" unkept promises to customers on its menu that Bern's Steak House provides many of its own vegetables from its farm. "The farm is a field of grass and dirt and no vegetables are evident," the story reported. "Most of the restaurant's produce comes from major food-service providers and just a small portion of it is organic." The story goes on to say that cultivation at the farm ended in January in order to move operations to a much smaller property across the street, where farming would resume in the fall. Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, which shared the property and farming equipment with Bern's in exchange for cultivating and harvesting herbs and vegetables for the two restaurants, stopped working at the original farm in February, moving to a new, 7-acre location near the Children's Home in Tampa. The original land, the story says, is scheduled to be turned into youth soccer fields and a gas station. The story proved damaging to Bern's reputation, Laxer says, with confused customers seeking an explanation. The inference: The restaurant purposefully misled customers. "We had calls from some who felt they had been lied to their entire lives," Laxer said. "It was not a pretty picture they painted. It wasn't fair." Calls and emails to Laura Reiley, the Times reporter who wrote the story, were not returned. About three years ago, Laxer bought majority ownership of the professional soccer club now known as the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He began making plans to build a stadium for the franchise on the restaurant's Waters Avenue property. To do so, he would move the farm for Bern's and SideBern's across the street to the 2 acres surrounding his boyhood home. When the Hillsborough County Commission denied his request to permit construction, Laxer was approached to build big-box retail stores such as Walmart or Sam's Club on the property. In the end, he decided to use the land to build practice fields for the Rowdies and to pay for the project by using an outparcel to be part of a joint-venture in an upscale gas station and convenience store. Sweetwater founder Rick Martinez says Laxer informed him of the plan two years ago at about the time he decided his organic farm needed more room to grow food for the 400 families it serves. The move by Sweetwater was made possible, Martinez says, because its business benefited from the land- and equipment-sharing agreement with Bern's. And because Bern Laxer started the organic farm 30 years before the farm-to-table approach became fashionable. "We wouldn't be where we are today if it hadn't been for our relationship with Bern's," Martinez says. "Their impact is far beyond what goes into the restaurant." The Bern's farm, which manager Berk Gumus says costs about $75,000 a year to operate, not including taxes, produced vegetables like celery, carrots and radishes through the end of March, when it was time to relocate the farm's irrigation system, compost heap and greenhouse. Even during the move, which is still in progress, container gardens have continued to provide both the steak house and SideBern's with microgreens and rare herbs such as Gumus, and other workers have relocated topsoil from the original farm. "What we grow out there — lemon balm, anise hyssop, the obscure stuff — you can't even call people and get that stuff," SideBern's executive chef Chad Johnson says. "If you had a 20 dollar bill, you couldn't just go somewhere and get that in Tampa." The new farm will use almost the same amount of land Bern's used previously, while producing the same yield, Gumus says. The interruption in ground cultivation will be only slightly longer than the resting period normally used to regenerate the soil during summer. So what should Bern's have told customers about the farm's transition? David Laxer agrees the restaurant could have been more clear on its menu how it used the farm and what servers told diners at tableside. Toward that goal, Laxer's note to diners in menus reprinted last week now reads, "Like my father, I am a great believer in farm-fresh organic produce. That is why we grow what we can on our own farm, organically, without pesticides or other toxic materials." The volume of vegetables used at Bern's precludes the restaurant from producing enough to satisfy demands. And some ingredients are impractical to purchase organically, Laxer says. The kitchen plows through 5,300 pounds of onions each week for onion rings to adorn steaks. Buying organic onions or potatoes just to fry them makes no sense, he says. "We're doing 25 percent organic, but if you take out the onions and potatoes, that number rises significantly," he says. "You can play with the numbers any way you want, but you have to look specifically at where you're going to get the bang for your buck." The restaurant also plans to re-train staff on the basics of the new farm and the vegetables and herbs it produces. "Some of our older staff has been here 30 years," Bern's spokeswoman Brooke Palmer says. "The stories they tell about the farm and the ones told by newer trainees are going to be drastically different. It's good it was brought to our attention."
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