– Conversation with Ray and Lauren Menendez –
“The restaurant business is no cushy career path. It’s labor-intensive. Long hours and slim margins. But I love every part of it—even the weekly P&L!”
Ray Menendez is not one to parse words. After almost 30 years in restaurant operations and management, between Hooters in Clearwater and Daily Eats in Hyde Park, he speaks with the quiet confidence of someone who has seen and handled countless challenges, and knows what he wants.
When given the opportunity to develop an eatery from scratch, he knew all the elements he would insist on: a novel menu, a full-service counter with stool seating, and a tidy, efficient back of house.
His wife Lauren is equally particular about details; she is an interior designer by day. As fellow owner-operators of Graze 1910, they complement each other’s strengths, but are aligned in their passion about the quality of the brand and the product.
Back in the summer of 2016, they launched the process of bringing their minty-green façade to life inside Heights Public Market at Armature Works with the rallying cry: “Let’s do this!”
Today, Ray and Lauren both oversee the stall’s daily business, digital marketing, and miscellaneous troubleshooting, though much of the hardest work came before opening day.
Understandably, they labored over menu planning. What would balance and fulfill the expectation of a modern diner concept, with a 50/50 split of clean, healthful fare and more traditional diner comfort food?
Six months of gastronomic experimentation without a proper test kitchen in which to realistically mimic daily operations made the Menendezes very nervous, so they began prepping and plating furiously in their new space two weeks ahead of the official soft opening of Armature Works.
The result is a careful blending of the old and the new, New American. Fried chicken and waffles are present, as are two burger options. But there are also six open-faced “tartine” sandwiches, which bridge the heavy and the light.
I have yet to try the Chicken Salad tartine, which uses a croissant waffle as its base. Did you catch that? It bears repeating: a croissant waffle. Please don’t (do!) all rush through our doors at once to get a taste of this incredible item!
I am already a big fan of the Blackened Ahi Tuna Greens & Grains Bowl, which at $12 is a generous but comfortably filling portion, with premium ingredients like guacamole and super tasty kale-pesto rice. The kale-pesto is made by hand every morning, in case you’re wondering.
Even the indulgent food items are created in the best possible manner. The fryer uses rice oil, which has a low rate of “transfer,” meaning foods cooked in it are less greasy. The burger is made with a custom in-house blend, and the spicy chicken sandwich is actually seasoned using an in-house spicy flour mix in the breading, rather than using a buffalo sauce at the end of preparation.
Ray hired a head chef he knew and trusted to make Graze 1910 a success, who worked previously at Oxford Exchange and Café Dufrain. That would be Bubba, his right-hand kitchen leader and menu advisor, usually visible through an opening in the white tile backsplash of the stall.
Together, Ray and Bubba visited similar food halls in Atlanta and New York, with an itinerary of eating set out in advance, to sample as many dishes as possible, ask questions about logistical challenges like waste disposal, and ensure they weren’t needlessly reinventing the wheel.
Back in Tampa, Ray and Lauren labored over the intangible elements of the new business: name, brand identity, colors, and designs.
“Graze” comes from the style of eating that is grazing all day long, rather than eating strictly delineated breakfast-lunch-and-dinner. So many of us eat that way, so it’s logical that the options be fluid and applicable at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m.
“1910” references the address of the building, as well as the year it was built. Future Graze locations may be “Graze 4th” or “Graze Central” to reflect the locality they each call home.
Ray and Lauren envisioned a modern diner. What they got was a fully-fleshed design that encompasses the hallmarks of the diner experience: counter seating, a bright and inviting space (not hurt by their spot adjacent to the windows facing the Hillsborough River), and the ability to cultivate relationships.
With pricing that is very reasonable and a strict commitment to local quality, of everything from the ingredients they cook with to the brands they sell (like Hyppo popsicles), they attract a customer that can develop a habit of eating at Graze. And they want that.
Ray is serious about relationships. Being a visible and proactive proprietor has served him well, as many of his regulars from the past are now regulars at Graze. He’s always cared deeply about providing a consistent product and reliable service to his diners—in other words, a naturally gifted host.
Catering is also available, and at the one year mark, they’ll evaluate possibilities for future locations. Much like other stalls in Heights Public Market, they have experienced fervor and volumes they couldn’t have imagined, and are primed for launch into other arenas and growth opportunities.
The two also plan to rework the menu regularly to keep their diners engaged.
It’s an exciting thing to watch a brand take off, and we are all very happy to have Ray and Lauren Menendez as part of the family here.