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Thursday, June 13, 2024

On-campus exposure brings off-campus success to local restaurant owners

UF’s Florida Fresh Dining collaborates with Gainesville eateries

Joshua Joseph, the chef and owner of Tropical Eatz food truck, grills at 1225 NW 10th Ave., on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.
Joshua Joseph, the chef and owner of Tropical Eatz food truck, grills at 1225 NW 10th Ave., on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.

Since middle school, Joshua Joseph knew he wanted to be a chef. 

Now, the 27-year-old South Florida native is the owner of Chef JJ Creations — a Gainesville catering company that sells its Jamaican-Haitian-Bahamian cuisine through the Tropical Eatz food truck. Many UF students, though, know Chef JJ’s food from eating it on campus. 

Chef JJ is one of several local restaurants that Chartwells Higher Education, UF’s dining partner since May 2022, brought to campus since launching the Florida Fresh Dining brand in July 2022. 

The brand was founded with a pledge from Chartwell to invest in local businesses — including launching the Taste of Gainesville section of the Reitz Union, which opened Summer 2022 and features two local eateries per day in a pop-up setting.

In Spring 2022, Chef JJ Creations earned a spot as one of the eateries featured. Joseph and his brother, 40-year-old Chef JJ business manager and co-founder Freedlengton Joseph, saw the pop-up as a marketing opportunity to get in front of students and faculty, rather than a permanent setup.

“We had QR codes with our IG on there, so when students walked by we would tell them, ‘hey, if you like our food, we’re not always here but we are at our home location,’” Freedlengton said.

The pop-up also gave Chef JJ exposure to faculty as well as students — which, along with the network connections made with the UF food service team members, “opened more doors” for their catering business, Freedlengton said.

“With our catering, a lot of ... faculty members are the ones ordering,” said Freedlengton. “By trying our food, they’re able to say, ‘OK, we want it for catering.’”

After the success of the pop-up, Chef JJ began serving lunch once a week to students in Broward Dining Hall during Fall 2022. Serving 300 students at a time in an all-you-can-eat setting was a challenge, but the brothers’ experience cooking in volume for catering eased the learning curve, Freedlengton said.

Many of the students served came from South Florida, Joshua said, and Chef JJ’s ultimate goal was to provide a “taste of home” for those students – especially those who, like him, grew up eating dishes from their families’ home countries in the Caribbean.

“We figured out there’s so many Caribbean people here … and we can showcase the food that those people are used to and miss,” said Joshua.

Through their pop-up, Joshua and Freedlengton let students know they don’t have to go to Jacksonville or Orlando for South Florida cuisine – they can stay right here in Gainesville, Freedlengton said.

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Another Taste of Gainesville pop-up, Fat G’s BBQ, is a catering and food truck business that now operates permanently in the Reitz. Fat G’s was offered the permanent location after earning the highest sales revenue of any other local business showcased, according to 33-year-old owner-operator Gregory Brown. 

“We were blessed right from the start,” said Brown. “We love the students and we’re glad they love us.”

Like Chef JJ, Fat G’s noticed an influx of catering orders as a result of the exposure gained from its on-campus location.

“Even when the person who needs catering isn’t necessarily from UF, normally someone in the party is like, ‘oh, yeah, I eat from him during the week,’” Brown said. 

Because of the volatility of the food truck industry, especially following the pandemic, Fat G’s permanent Reitz location has become the “rock” of its business and offers a consistent number of customers daily, Brown said.

Brown hopes to someday open a brick-and-mortar location in Gainesville, with the eventual goal to operate simultaneously in the Reitz, an off-campus location and a mobile food truck.

Unlike Chef JJ and Fat G’s, Mi Apá Latin Cafe had been operating as a brick-and-mortar store off-campus for almost 20 years before opening its Taste of Gainesville pop-up. The eatery previously worked with UF’s former dining company Aramark to serve food at the Gator Corner dining hall, said 51-year-old owner and founder Peter Ynigo.

“When there was a switch over to Chartwell … Chartwell was really happy with what we had done in the past with the other company and they said, ‘we can do even better for you guys … we want to give you a location in the Reitz," said Ynigo. “We jumped on it right away.”

Mi Apá, opened by Ynigo and his wife in 2003 at a time when there weren’t many Hispanic restaurants in town, was already well-loved in the Gainesville community when the Reitz location opened, he said. Regardless, Ynigo said the experience has been a “complete eye opener.”

“Even though our name is definitely known, it’s a plus for us … to be inside the Reitz,” he said. “[UF] constantly gets new students … it makes us even more efficient.”

Aside from the wider student recognition that comes from Mi Apá’s campus location, operating at UF has a greater symbolic meaning for Ynigo as well.

“For us to be inside the Reitz felt like ‘wow, we belong in this community,’” said Ynigo. “If we’re inside the University of Florida, we’re making it.”

In conjunction with showcasing local businesses on campus, FFD has stepped back from chain restaurants. Pollo Tropical was the most recent on-campus chain to close — shutting its doors on April 26 — preceded by Wendy’s and Papa John’s. 

Brendan Schneck, 38-year-old owner-operator of Big Island Bowls, sees FFD’s commitment to local businesses as a positive for the Gainesville community.

“For a small local business to get in front of that many students is a great opportunity, and normally it’s given to these big mega corporations,” said Schneck.

Big Island Bowls, a St. Augustine-based acai joint, also opened a Taste of Gainesville pop-up. Because the store’s Gainesville location only opened in March 2022, operating in the Reitz acted as its introduction to the Gainesville community and brought new business to its location in the Tioga Town Center.

“We definitely noticed a difference,” said Schneck. “People that maybe had never heard of us before then knew about us to come check out our actual store.”

Aside from pop-ups in the Reitz, FFD has also opened permanent locations for local restaurants throughout UF’s campus.

Sweetberries, an eatery beloved for its frozen custard and sandwiches, opened on-campus at Stadium Road in September 2022 after its permanent location off-campus on 5th Avenue closed in July 2022.

Like Mi Apá, Sweetberries was already established in the Gainesville community before opening to UF students.

“We’ve always been pretty popular in the community and our original location wasn’t very far from here,” said May Sowich, 24-year-old general manager of the campus Sweetberries. “But I would say it’s brought us some recognition.”

Although Sweetberries has been “definitely missed” by Gainesville while unavailable off-campus throughout the past year, Sowich said the restaurant opened its doors July 15 to a brand-new location on 5th Avenue. 

“We heard a lot from the community about moving to campus … they felt like we abandoned them,” said Sowich. “Little did they know we were working on this location the entire time.”

As a local sandwich-and-coffee joint competing with five on-campus Starbucks locations, Sweetberries has received marketing help from FFD to draw in students, Sowich said. FFD helps the restaurant create signage and designs the PowerPoint menu board Sweetberries uses to display their custard flavors for the day.

As the 2023 school year begins, the Reitz is home to two new restaurants — Baba’s Pizza and Halal Shack, both of which have locations across college campuses nationwide — that operate alongside Fat G’s, Mi Apá, Starbucks, Burger 352 and Panda Express on the second-floor food court. 

Contact Zoey at Follow her on Twitter @zoeythomas39

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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