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Ethan, left, and Blair Hensley will open Florida Cracker Kitchen in Pablo Station, their first restaurant outside Brooksville. Their partners are the principals of Jacksonville-based ServStar Management Group.
Jax Daily Record Friday, May. 19, 201712:00 PM EST

Restaurant with a mission: Preserve the state's history

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Brothers bringing Brooksville's Florida Cracker Kitchen to Jacksonville

Blair Hensley is bringing history to Jacksonville along with a restaurant, tap room and merchandise.

Hensley, 38, and his brother, Ethan, 35, are partnering with ServStar Management Group to open the Florida Cracker Kitchen, a tap room and the Florida Cracker Trading Co. at Beach Boulevard and San Pablo Road.

They opened the restaurant in Brooksville in 2013 and, through meeting ServStar Vice President of Strategy Robert Tilka, will venture into Jacksonville pending permitting.

“We’re getting ready to rock and roll up there,” Blair Hensley said Thursday.

Hensley also wants to preserve Florida history, such as with the name. A Florida cracker, he explained, is a Florida cowboy so named from the crack of the whip while hunting wild cattle in the swamps.

The first cowboy, he said, was explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who brought cows and oranges to Florida in 1512.

“Everything we do is Florida-based,” Hensley said, including the focus of the menu, the Florida-produced beers on tap and the Florida wines.

Hensley said they started producing videos for YouTube on topics such as how to make sugar-cane syrup, featuring a local man who makes it for them for the restaurant.

“We want to capture some of that before it’s lost. We’re trying to preserve where Florida came from,” Hensley said.

Florida Cracker Kitchen is being developed at 14329 Beach Blvd. in a closed tire store. Hensley said it will be remodeled to resemble the Brooksville location, with a restaurant, tap room and merchandise sales.

It will operate 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and close on Monday. The tap room also closes at 2:30 p.m., while the merchandise sales remain open until 6 p.m., he said.

The menu includes family recipes, such as crab cakes and smoked mullet dip.

The breakfast menu includes the traditional items in addition to chicken and waffles, the Florida Cowboy Classic of corned beef hash, eggs and potatoes, Ybor breakfast burritos and more.

Lunch items include Mom’s Crab Cakes, fried catfish, panko fried shrimp, Okeechobee gumbo, Manasota coconut shrimp,Punta Rassa burgers and other specialties. There also are sandwiches, po’boys and salads.

Sides include tomato gravy, fresh collard greens and kielbasa.

Hensley said all the food is freshly prepared. Florida Cracker bakes its own breads, makes its own gravies and cuts its own fruit, for example.

Keeping with the historical theme, Punta Rassa was a cattle-shipping town on the Southwest coast of Florida and one of the first ports to ship cattle to Cuba.

Hensley credits the staff and the support of Brooksville, with a population of 14,000 including the surrounding area, for the ability to branch out.

Brooksville is north of Tampa, an almost a 3-hour drive — 165 miles — from Jacksonville.

“We wouldn’t be who we are without our staff,” he said. And Brooksville customers “are the ones who embody it. We wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

While the hometown supports the restaurant during the week, out-of-towners seek out Florida Cracker Kitchen on weekends, he said.

“We are a destination place,” he said.

That’s how he met Tilka, who came down to eat and saw an opportunity. “They came after us,” Hensley said.

But at first, Hensley wasn’t interested. “Once we started thinking about it, I did my research on them and I like how local they are,” and he was impressed with the management team and the established brands.

ServStar Management Group is a bar management company whose properties include the three Hoptinger’s area locations, Surfer The Bar and The Shim Sham Room in Jacksonville Beach, Scarlett O’Hara’s in St. Augustine, and three locations for Dos Gatos.

Hensley said he determined ServStar’s team “would be the perfect group to team up with to grow the brand.”

The Pablo Station restaurant will be very similar to the original. “Same look, same feel,” he said.

Hensley’s mother, Larie Hensley, started Mallie Kyla’s Café in Brooksville in 1996, affording experience to Blair and Ethan. It’s named after Hensley’s father’s grandmother and continues in business.

It was awarded “Best Small Town Restaurant” by Southern Living Magazine in 1998 and 1999, the last two years the award was made, he said.

Ethan attended culinary school and pursued his craft. Blair earned a degree in sports medicine, worked for a developer from 2002-06, just before the market began to crash, and then Blair bought the long-standing Coney Island Drive Inn hot dog spot in Brooksville in 2006.

He conceptualized Florida Cracker Trading Co. and its logo — and upside-down boot with a star — 14 years ago, long before it opened.

The star signifies Lake Okeechobee and the upside-down boot resembles the state of Florida, he said. And the Florida cracker is the cowboy.

When the Farmer John’s Key West Café came up for sale, he pulled out his notebook and he and Ethan went to work.

They sold Coney Island in 2014 a year after opening Florida Cracker and bought the two buildings next door to Farmer John’s to open the Tap Room at the Florida Cracker and the Florida Cracker Trading Co. They also doubled seating to 68.

The merchandise includes Florida Cracker-branded T-shirts, hats and the like, as well as Florida-based gourmet food products, household items and Yeti products.

To find a location, he used his development background and worked with the ServStar team to find the closed tire store at a high-traffic location that also isn’t far from the Beaches.

Tilka said Thursday two or three more area sites are being scouted. Hensley said the focus for now is on the first one.

The Hensleys are teaming up with the ServStar principals in the venture. They expect to hire 20-25 employees and have identified the local manager.

“Our focus is to get the first one up and running and see where the road takes us,” Hensley said.

The opening date depends on construction approvals, which Hensley hopes could be in 60-90 days.

Brooksville resident Mike Tolbert, a former Jacksonville resident and longtime political consultant, said Florida Cracker Kitchen’s food is “really good stuff.”

“It’s always packed. I don’t care when you go by there, it’s always packed,” he said.

Tolbert said it should be a hit in Jacksonville.

“I think they would do very, very well,” he said.

Hensley also reminds people that Jacksonville’s history fits the theme. It was called Cowford because the narrow part of the St. Johns River in what is now Downtown provided a cattle crossing.

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@MathisKb

(904) 356-2466

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