Long before the en-vogue Candy Apple Café & Cocktails opened its doors this spring in Downtown Jacksonville, its owners had another, very different idea for an eatery.
Husband-and-wife team Alan and Ellen Cottrill and mother-daughter duo say for about a decade, they have envisioned opening a restaurant that blends great food with social interaction.
Featuring sharable plates and customer-chef interactions, their concept is akin to the dinner-club format the four food lovers enjoyed for years.
The monthly themed gatherings featured a five-course small-plate dinner experience in a cocktail party environment and allowed their social circles to intersect.
As the Cottrills and Earnests explored their idea further, they began to fancy the notion of setting up chef’s tables and having butler-passed appetizers.
They came up with the idea to have their customers ring in the weekends with an eatery-wide champagne toast every Friday afternoon.
It would be the ultimate place in Jacksonville to socialize — to hobnob, so to speak.
By late fall, the Cottrills’ and Earnests’ longstanding concept, HOBNOB, will open above Unity Plaza at 220 Riverside, an upscale apartment community buoyed by retail stores, restaurants, programmed activities and Unity Park.
“From the very first dinner club, we said, ‘One day this is going to be a restaurant.’ And now, here we are,” Ellen Cottrill said.
The venture deliberately aims to delve beyond the Candy Apple collaboration by merging the partners’ varied talents, business backgrounds and social interests.
“Although Candy Apple has been wonderfully successful, the Candy Apple theme is definitely tied to being next to Sweet Pete’s” gourmet chocolate and candy store, Ellen Cottrill said.
“HOBNOB represents us — it’s our personality coming through,” she said.
Liz Earnest said she thinks the Candy Apple team is on to something special with its new venture.
“We want to draw wonderful, inspired and fun people who love trying new foods to our restaurant,” she said. “Our ideal customers (will) want to celebrate with friends, flirt with new foods, smile, laugh and leave full.”
HOBNOB will serve lunch and dinner daily; the bar will offer craft cocktails, beer and wine.
The 4,560-square-foot, 200-seat gathering spot is expected to employ about 40 people, including about 25 part-timers. Planning and design are being finalized, and construction has just begun.
The owners would not provide the project’s budget or specifics about the menu, which is being developed under the concept of “global inspirations with local intentions.”
Liz Earnest said they are moving away from the Southern fare at Candy Apple and “getting a bit more adventurous with this menu.”
The restaurant’s culinary team will be led by Jamey Evoniuk, Candy Apple’s executive chef, who Alan Cottrill said is especially skilled at simplifying sophisticated food.
The HOBNOB business plan’s finalization was spurred by the development of Unity Plaza as a community-centric, urban gathering spot with daily programmed activities including free yoga classes, art demonstrations and amphitheater concerts.
In September, Philadelphia celebrity chef Kevin Sbraga is scheduled to open Sbraga and Company next to HOBNOB’s space. Sbraga won the seventh season of “Top Chef.”
In recent years, the HOBNOB team’s vacations to places like San Diego and Philadelphia have been parlayed as business trips, during which they’ve acquired ideas that build upon their original concept.
As it turns out, coming up with the name HOBNOB — which deliberately has all capital letters, but is not an acronym — was a project, in itself.
“We really wanted the name to capture the identity of the space, of the concept, and of us, because we feel like this restaurant is an extension of who we are,” Jennifer Earnest said. “It is a place for diners to come and elevate their spirit, palate and mood by rubbing elbows with friends.”
The business partners say that they aren’t sure what’s next after HOBNOB.
“The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in all of us, so, you never know,” Ellen Cottrill said.