This has been the fastest year of Stephen Schrutt's life.
The Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group founder and CEO is about two weeks away from launching his newest culinary project, Proper Kitchen & Cocktails, next to his downtown flagship, the Avenue Eat + Drink. He recently celebrated the birthday of 1-year-old Kings Street Food Counter, named after his English bulldog, King, in the still-booming EDGE District. And the Ave is poised to celebrate another milestone on its one-way stretch of First Avenue South: five years in business.
"It's been the craziest year of my life," the restaurateur says, "but it's also been the most exciting because we get to do what we love every day."
A St. Pete diehard who isn't interested in taking Hunger + Thirst into another market, Schrutt credits the success of the Avenue to his staff and customers. The American gastropub has become a destination for lunch as well as Happy Hour and dinner on a block where past neighbors haven't fared as well. But the main thing the tight-knit team's been able to build, he says, is a culture that encourages everyone — from management to back of house — to have each others' backs and make the Avenue a fun, welcoming place to be.
The restaurant's five-year bash is a chance to reflect on what they've accomplished.
"You've got customers who appreciate what we do. We've got each other that appreciate what we bring to the table. It's a night to say, 'This is us. Let's celebrate the hard work that goes into it.' We're open to the pubic, but we're definitely going to try to enjoy it a little bit, too, with everyone," Schrutt says.
Among the highlights are giveaways and specials, burger cake pops, music by the Dan Orlando Band and DJ Fresh, a retro car that's been turned into a photobooth, and a Champagne tower toast at midnight, which has become a tradition over the years. Guests should don their finest cocktail attire to the celebration, which runs from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday.
At 344 First Ave. S., Proper will carry on the anytime vibe that the Avenue's established next door.
With executive chef Joaquin Alcocer Jr. and executive sous chef A.J. Lambden (who spent years at Beach Drive's Cassis American Brasserie), the Southern cuisine and barbecue restaurant — featuring a steel-top bar with elevated cocktails, spacious outdoor patio and lots of communal seating — will pull off items like small plates, sandwiches for lunch, supper entrees and seasonally rotating desserts. A four-door, custom-built smoker in the outdoor kitchen and the wood-burning oven left behind by Wood Fired Pizza inside are part of their gastronomic arsenal.
And the block's synergy won't stop there.
On Tuesday evening, Schrutt told CL he's purchased the corner space World of Beer called home until four months or so ago. The 3,100-square-foot building has started morphing into Park & Rec, the fourth concept for Hunger + Thirst. Unlike Proper, which Schrutt says was held up by "a lot of issues," including permits needed for the kitchen, things are moving at an excitingly quick pace for the new-newcomer at 100 Fourth St. N.
Park & Rec, a social bar as well as a meetup for eats and entertainment (think Skee-Ball, Galaga, air hockey and basketball), is set to incorporate some aspects of the Ave — TVs and fun cocktails among them. Canned beer will be the focus, and the cocktail selection will be small, as will the bar-style food menu created from the Avenue and Proper kitchens and meant for sharing with a large group.
"This is gonna be a gaming, social bar," Schrutt says. "I think there's nothing like this, and we need places to do stuff. Everyone has food and alcohol. We need stuff to do, whether it be a great band or a great DJ, but you can party while listening to that, you can play games while listening to that."
The bar's entertainment element inspired its name. Park because that's where people play (plus it's a nod to trailer parks and the 27-foot Airstream bar planned for the yard between Proper and Park & Rec), while Rec speaks to recreational gaming. There will also be times when Park & Rec opens its garage door, allowing for live music to be enjoyed by the Proper porch as well as its own.
What attracted Schrutt to the EDGE while exploring locations for Kings was that the district was becoming its own hub for food and drink — and still is. That's what he wants to create for First Avenue South.
"We have been able to capture an audience, and to be able to extend this block and to make this a destination block excited all of us. Our plans are to give downtown another area to enjoy," he says.
Proper is targeting a mid-November opening, and Park & Rec won't be far behind. Schrutt's aiming to debut the bar in the middle of the month as well, if not a week or two after Proper. Of course, this means that a big birthday block party for the Avenue and its youngest siblings will be in order next year.
The owner doesn't foresee his trio of businesses competing for customers. Instead, the food and drink hangouts will work together, offering a nice flow from one concept to the next.
"I think we can establish this block like never before and have the consistency of three places being a downtown destination. First Ave. South is something that is still a dream for me, [having] these three places working together as one block for great food, cocktails and service," Schrutt says. "Atmosphere is something that I'm big on, and I want to provide a complete block to downtown St. Pete."