January 03,2017 - Restaurant at the Ranch When they build it, who will come?
By Sue Wade
One four-way stop sign stands idle at an intersection leading to a downtown-in-progress. Two one-ways lean lazily against each other, waiting to be given a job after more roads are paved.
Birds sing, undisturbed by the rumbling of jackhammers and earthmoving equipment. Tenderly transplanted native cabbage palms and grasses are beginning to take root along a winding entrance boulevard.
There’s nothing quite like being on-site as a 17,000-acre, state-of-the art town goes up in the middle of a wilderness.
Matt Seiler, food and beverage director for Syd Kitson’s Babcock Ranch, could barely contain himself.
Most recently with the Marco Island Marriott, Seiler grew up in the New York restaurant world. His biggest passion is hospitality and F& B.
“I do a little of everything,” he said. “Everything food and beverage related here, my fingerprints are on it.”
And Seiler’s passion for the Babcock vision of community is as infectious as everyone else’s in the Kitson & Partners family. They can see the future Babcock Ranch as clearly as if it stood completed today, with sociable front porches, common greens and a busy downtown.
But those house-hunting among the first model homes might have to use more imagination.
For that reason, explained John Hillman, executive vice president of sales and marketing, “We’re building the first neighborhood and the beginning of downtown, so people can understand immediately what town life is going to be like.
“Like that first week in college, when everybody’s not from there, but they have this common bond.”
And the place where college freshmen first bond? Often, the dining hall.
As visitors, house hunters, and new residents come to Babcock from around the state and nation, one of the first places they’ll discover on the downtown lakefront is an extraordinary “dining hall” — Table & Tap.
The 4,300-square-foot, 150-seat restaurant will evoke a lived-in family summer house that’s evolved organically, adding rooms and ambiances over the years as the family has grown. Just like a family retreat, said Seiler, you can dress up or wear flip-flops there, kids run out to play games, parents watch games on TV.
One big difference, though: Town residents will be able to charge tabs to their house.
Even though the town will have few, if any, residents by the time Table & Tap opens in February, Seiler takes a longer view.
“This won’t be open only to Babcock residents, but also to Fort Myers, Naples, Orlando, wherever you come from. Imagine proposing or having your wedding here. This is a great spot for magic moments.”
Nicole Kozak — Realtor and owner of Bonita Springs’ Circle C Farm, which will supply the restaurant’s free-range, non-GMO protein — said, “Given what Babcock Ranch will offer, they’ll pull not only locally but regionally — from Tampa and Miami. People are going to come check it out, from a real estate standpoint. It’s close enough to be a day or weekend trip to our area. And it should draw people looking for different kinds of things to do, like Westgate River Ranch outside Orlando,” an Old Florida dude ranch experience.
API (+) Design’s Thomas Henken and Judy Norlin described Table & Tap as a weathered wood and stone setting that complements Babcock’s other homages to nature and the past.
“Built-in cabinetry with collected items will exude the sense … (of) a residence that has been converted into a restaurant and bar without disturbing or diminishing the contributions of the past.”
Those entering the welcoming area at the front of the restaurant will be drawn into a bar with fireplace, then through progressively more intimate settings with lake views, indoor and outdoor seating, an enclosed porch.
The lakefront lawn will have cushioned outdoor lounge seating around a fire pit, giant chess and checkers sets, and an adult-size version of Connect Four — one of Babcock president Rick Severance’s childhood favorites.
A beer garden will seat 35 guests around a massive oak, transported to the site from the wild.
Said Hillman, “Like our idea of front-porch living, where neighbor meets neighbor, we also wanted downtown to be both indoor and outdoor, living in multiple directions. The restaurant lives lakeside, but also faces the Founders Square band shell. When we start doing outdoor festivals on the great lawn, a walkway will welcome you into the back of the restaurant.”
Table & Tap will embody the Babcock credo of sustainability, energy conservation and living in harmony with the environment.
Along with Circle C for protein, Oakes Farms, Florida’s biggest provider of farm-to-table crops, will source most produce.
Seiler’s team is still deciding on an executive chef, from local candidates who are as attuned to sustainability as Babcock itself. An announcement is due soon.
The next eatery to open in the spring, just across the square, will be Market Cafe, with honey from Babcock bees and locally grown produce by the pound. Mainstays like apples will sit beside more unusual, plate-popping veggies like trendy tricolored cauliflower.
The market’s ice cream shop, Square Scoops, plays on the Founders Square name with a cleverly blocky logo of square ice cream scoops. The leading contender to supply it is Fort Myersbased Love Boat Ice Cream, churning over 50 homemade flavors for 50 years now.
“And that’s just our second restaurant of four or five,” promised Seiler. Continuing to honor Babcock’s roots, he hinted, “The next one’s name will have a mercantile feel to it, named after one of the cowboys who worked here.”