By Dakota Parks for Business Climate
When Michael Carro first opened the Al Fresco food court seven years ago, he set out to bring Airstream food trucks to downtown Pensacola, a concept he encountered while traveling. Locals quickly latched onto the food court and Al Fresco became a staple to the Pensacola food scene. However, Florida’s blazing sun and frequent rain often left customers ducking under patio umbrellas. In November 2019, Carro and his business partners broke ground on the redesign and rebrand to not only build a roof over the court but to also bring a garden oasis downtown. The Garden at Palafox & Main had its soft opening in July with staggered food truck and kiosk openings.
“When I first developed Al Fresco, I made three monumental errors and this was my chance to fix them,” Carro explained. “First, when you’re an outdoor venue that’s weather dependent, you can lose a lot of business when it storms. Second, I brought in tenants that I knew would pay rent, but I didn’t account for whether they provided good customer service or kept good hours of operation. Lastly, each restaurant was equally responsible for maintaining and cleaning the food court, which didn’t work. Now we have a paid employee that takes care of the food court.”
Getting the food court covered was the top priority of the redesign; however, it also provided the opportunity to fix the layout of the property and bring in additional merchants. The Garden now features four Airstream food trucks, five merchant kiosks and an integrated and accessible bar named the Perennial Patio Bar operated by the owners of Perfect Plain Brewing Co. and Garden & Grain. The open-air design of the food court still remains intact with open entrances and airflow facilitated by four industrial brand Big Ass Fans.
When you walk into The Garden, the first thing you may notice are four palm trees emerging through the top of the roof like a tropical jungle, closely followed by the smell of delicious food. It was designed to look like a building that had been there for hundreds of years to fit into the historical aesthetics of downtown Pensacola. The lot originally had 14 palm trees on it and the modified roof allowed them to keep the four corner palms. Leaning into the design, the lush vegetation and plant wall were then designed by Heroman Plant Company.
“One of my partners, Cleve Bellar is a brand manager and he thought it would be great to incorporate more plants and foliage into The Garden,” Carro explained. “We were able to save elements from Al Fresco like our planters and create this lush outdoor oasis. We still have more plants to add. On the Instagram wall, you can see these great big leaves that Cleve designed to look like a butterfly. Those same green leaves are incorporated throughout our business signage.”
The new merchants and tenants in The Garden are under individual leases varying in length. Carro explained that the reopening has allowed him to create what he calls an “incubator for business” to allow people to come into the space and try out a new concept or menu without jeopardizing their finances. Tenants can come in for short term rentals to work out their own business concepts rather than purchasing or renting their own brick and mortar businesses. The Garden has also been dedicated to following social distancing protocol. The staggered openings of merchants and food trucks allowed them to monitor crowd control and work out the flow of the space. Tables are spaced out under the new roof and also line the outside perimeter of the building. The new staff helps keep tables clean and sanitized between guests and they even introduced contactless ordering with a QR Barcode that allows customers to order directly from their table. The current food trucks and merchants offer a diverse shopping and dining experience. The Garden is now open from 10 am to 9 pm daily with food trucks opening at 11 am and kiosks opening at various times listed below. Visit thegardenpensacola.com to check out full menu offerings, order online and learn about new merchant or food truck openings.
E-Saan Thai Street Food
From the owner of SaBai on Jefferson, Pam VanNess is offering up a whole new menu with bold and creative street foods. VanNess is excited to show Pensacola that there is more to Thai food than just Pad Thai and Curry. While SaBai offers traditional dishes like Khi Mao and curries, E-Saan offers dishes like Som-Tum Papaya Salad, Gai Yaang, Naree’s Noodles and sweet treats like Mango & Sweet Sticky Rice and Boba tea drinks.
An Al Fresco original tenant, Calavera is owned by Samantha Burmeister and will continue to offer Mexican cuisine at The Garden. Calavera serves up pork, beef, chicken, chorizo, shrimp and Mahi Mahi tacos. If that’s not enough, they have burritos, quesadillas, nachos and house made guacamole to make your mouth water. As the daughter of a Marine veteran and local sheriff’s deputy, Samantha said her restaurant will offer a 10-percent discount for active military members and first responders.
Boca Latin Kitchen
Brought to you by the owners of Mr. Pollo, Maria and Eduardo Arraez, Boca is a new concept serving up authentic Venezuelan street food. At their restaurant Mr. Pollo, guests can enjoy Peruvian style charcoal chicken and Latin-inspired side dishes. The owners are excited to bring more Latin food options to Pensacola. You can enjoy some of these staple dishes at the new food truck: Tequeños, Arepas, Empanadas, Yucas Locas and Patacon. Don’t miss out on the Vanilla Flan and Tres Leche Cake!
Melt Gourmet Sandwiches & Mac N’ Cheese
Owner Kendrick Hobbs created the new food concept in tandem with his wife one night while discussing different ways to make mac n’ cheese. Melt’s menu unleashes your cheese-loving inner-child. They serve up a variety of sandwiches like the Philly Cheesesteak Melt, Pulled Pork Melt and Chicken Parmesan Melt. Of course, you can’t forget to try the infamous Pulled Pork Mac N’ Cheese. Melt also has a mobile food truck operating in Pensacola, Pace and Milton areas.
Start date night off right by grabbing some fresh cut flowers, candles and gifts for your special someone. The Petaler is a woman owned and operated small floral boutique owned by Calavera’s food truck owner Samantha Burmeister. They specialize in dried floral arrangements, fresh cut flowers, house plants, candles and unique gifts. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am–5 pm.
Owner Dana Dugas decided to expand Petunia’s Bakery from her sister shop on Cervantes Street to spread smiles and cupcakes downtown Pensacola. Many of her sweet treats are named after Pensacola icons such as Graffiti Bridge, The Bluffs, Blackwater and The Blue Angel. Petunia’s Bakery has staple cupcake flavors on the menu available every day as well as scheduled day-of-the-week flavors like Smores, Key Lime and Pineapple Right Side Up. Open daily 11 am–7 pm and open until 8 pm on Friday and Saturday.
Darios Bake Shop
Owner Manuel “Manny” Rodriguez has a lifelong passion for cooking. After spending several years studying culinary arts and working for renowned chefs and celebrities, Manny has come back to Pensacola to share his passion for cooking with the community. Swing by for some unique Venezuelan baked goods, desserts and snacks. Open daily 8 am–2 pm.
Owner Sindy Hernandez is dedicated to creating healthy treats that no one has to feel guilty about. The namesake comes from the Latin word “deorum,” which means drinks or food from the Gods. Hernandez is excited to bring a healthy option into The Garden that offers zero-additive sugars on the menu. Come treat yourself to an acai bowl, smoothie or fresh fruit juice. Open daily 8 am–5 pm.
Old Palafox Snow Cones
Owner Michael Bush is serving up a classic with over a dozen different flavor syrups. Stop by to cool off with a classic snow cone. Open daily 11am–8 pm.