How millennials are fueling a local foodie movement

Janet Keeler visited the Rotary Club of Tampa to explore changes in the region's food scene.

At Tuesday's Rotary Club of Tampa luncheon, more than 60 Rotarians munched away at hardy-looking meatloaf, mingled to jazzy background music and learned about the Tampa Bay "foodie movement."

Janet Keeler, visiting assistant professor for USF St. Petersburg's Department of Journalism and Media Studies and former food and travel editor at the Tampa Bay Times, was the guest, there to explain "what is fueling the new food and new restaurants" popping up all over.

The region's food scene — which includes the influx of locally brewed craft beer and food trucks — has a "whiff of the ’70s," said Keeler. The difference, she pointed out, is that the generation driving the change is more entrepreneurial, looking to reap profit rather than brew beer for a buddy in their backyard.

Millennials, 18- to 34-year-olds, are dictating things with the power of their wallets, she said. Starting in 2017, they're expected to spend more than $200 billion every year.

Keeler described the powerful group as a generation that isn't going to be told what to do, and a generation not so into fine dining. Rather than white tablecloths, attentive waitstaff or a multi-course meal, they're into an "industrial-chic" feel, a good time and a waitstaff that's casually dressed.

Millennials have a different idea of healthy, looking for fresh, minimally processed food rather than obsessing about calories or fat content. They seek out vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options on every menu.

"Oh, and they love food with a story," Keeler said.

She used Seminole Heights's Refinery, a restaurant that works with area farmers, suppliers and artisans, as one example. The Refinery rotates its menu weekly based on what's fresh, with creatively named entrees like "Lil' Kim Jong Un" — and millennials love it.

What this means for the food scene, for better or worse, Keeler doesn't have the answer.

"It is just reality, whether it's good or bad," she said.

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