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Restaurant News: Birdrock Taco Shack in Bradenton on pandemic, new venture Cottonmouth

Photo Credit: Thomas Bender/Herald Tribune

When Florida dining rooms were closed in March to help contain the spread of COVID-19, Birdrock Taco Shack owner/chef Dave Shiplett said he was in a somewhat fortunate position, as a restaurant that already had a strong to-go system. And now that restaurants have reopened for dine-in, Shiplett is also readying a new spot to open in the same Village of the Arts neighborhood in Bradenton.

Birdrock Taco Shack, serving inventive versions of its titular dish, is open for dine-in both on its outdoor deck and at 50% capacity inside, along with offering takeout and delivery through third-party services. And within walking distance in the former location of Arts & Eats, Shiplett plans this October to open Cottonmouth Southern Soul Kitchen, which will serve the type of Southern cuisine he grew up with.
Photo Credit: Thomas Bender/Herald Tribune

Born and raised in Bradenton, Shiplett attended California Culinary Academy before returning to Sarasota-Manatee. He spent time at fine-dining establishments such as the old Poseidon on Longboat Key and opened Bradenton restaurants Ezra and Soma before opening Birdrock Taco Shack in Village of the Arts, near downtown Bradenton and the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring training home, LECOM Park.

In an Aug. 26 phone interview,Shiplett discussed how Birdrock Taco Shack has responded to the pandemic and his plans for Cottonmouth.

What does your dine-in setup look like currently at Birdrock Taco Shack?
Well, we only seat 28 people inside. That's full capacity, so we are 14 people inside. The good thing about that is last year at this time, I built a large deck. I'd done some shows out there, and actually I built it for spring training and season when everybody's eating outside. That got taken away this year, but the deck has rebounded because a majority of people now are wanting even during the heat to sit outside. And now my deck is the greatest thing ever. I've got 50 that I can put out there, and that's full capacity.

Photo Credit: Thomas Bender/Herald Tribune

What will be the setup be like at Cottonmouth, and what's the anticipated opening date currently?

It's really fun because there's not a bunch of restaurants that are opening going, "I'm catering to Southern food," like what I was born and raised with – collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, pork chop. That's what I'm doing over there. The seating capacity, I just got done with it with the state. It comes out to 28, which is exactly what I seat here inside. But over there, I've got a much larger back area that is a patio totally covered by beautiful trees. Back there I can seat, I'm still deciding on that, but it's probably around 60 at least. To the public, it'll be open by October.

What happened is this lady bought the place – it's been a restaurant that's been successful there for quite a while, and then they retired. They wanted to sell it, and they sold it to a lady that put a bunch of money into it, renovated the hundred-year-old cottage, really did a great job. Then the pandemic hit and she got cold feet, and turned to me because I've been successful coming up on five years and have a background. We reached an agreement, so I'm stepping in. The truth is, I wouldn't be there without the pandemic.

What are you offering in terms of takeout, delivery and other options for those who don't feel comfortable doing dine-in yet?
See, from the very beginning we worked on to-go five years ago. I already was doing business with Grubhub, Bite Squad and Uber Eats and doing a decent amount of to-go. So when it switched over and a lot of my friends in the restaurant business were having to learn how to do it, or do chicken wings instead of $30 plates, I didn't have to reinvent myself at all. When it went back to open seating from to-go only, I was just concerned because I like doing the to-go. I don't mind it, I like doing it, so I thought it's great to do a whole bunch of to-go. I was afraid it would go away, and it did not go away. So our regular business for inside has come back because June and July and August are slow, but what the increase is that people got used to doing to-go and they like it.

Photo Credit: Thomas Bender/Herald Tribune

Do you plan on offering takeout or delivery with Cottonmouth as well?

Yes, but not pushing it as hard, because a lot of what I'm doing over there doesn't have the travel ability that it does over here.

You said before that you plan to make live music a priority at Cottonmouth. Is that still your intention?
I've already booked my Hillbilly Gospel Brunch. There's a band I bring over that plays at the House of Blues and they're just amazing, they're called the Brown Bag Brass Band. I've booked them on my Sunday brunches over there at Cottonmouth, and that's the beginning of an anchor. I have a nice backyard that even if it was under the present circumstances, we could pull off a show. So yeah, music's going to be a priority over there.

Beyond social distancing, what are you doing at Birdrock in terms of safety and sanitation?
Well, I'm really lucky because we only seat 28 people and on an average day, I've got me and my daughter, we've got a small staff. I've got the temperature taker. All the people that come in that I'm connected with – my daughter, anyone that's coming to work, I take their temperature. I have a dishwasher that comes to work about three times a week and then one server, so I don't have a lot of people to worry about. But when they come in and I ask if they're OK, I mean it, and then we take their temperature. Then we're doing a lot of sanitizing that we weren't doing before. We always washed our hands, it was always the rule, but now every time the menu goes out, we sanitize the menus when they go out.

What does your staff look like compared to before the pandemic?
See, now you're comparing it to a pretty slow time, and I'm about where I should be. In March and April, I'm supposed to be doing literally triple the business that I normally do. It goes through the roof over here because I'm in the Village, I'm by art galleries and by the Pirates and all that. When you compare that to where I went, it was like 90 percent down from where I was supposed to be. Now I'm back up in the vicinity – I might be 20 percent down, but I'm making it up on to-go. I'm about where I should be, I should have one server.

How would you compare this pandemic to other challenges you may have dealt with over the years, whether that's red tide, recessions or hurricanes?

The only thing that I saw like it was when I was young and I was in San Diego, they had a hepatitis outbreak and it was ugly. It was the same type of situation where people got afraid to go out to eat, and all of a sudden, there were new mandates and new rules. It makes it easier I think for people like me because I'm more nimble, I'm an individual single corporation LLC, a chef and an owner. If the state comes out with a new mandate today, there's a good chance that I can adapt because I'm small, I'm nimble. I think we've been able from the very beginning to adapt because of that.

Because I stepped away from actual high-end fine dining from my Longboat Key days – I was on Longboat Key doing fine dining for a long time – I think the hit on fine dining has been bigger than the hit on casual dining. I just happened to have done casual dining now because I feel more casual, it's more fun. Cottonmouth will be a step up from here, but not a big step. We're going to do dessert and coffee, but definitely not fine dining.

Are you worried about opening a restaurant during a pandemic?
I'd be worried to open a restaurant anytime. If you're not worried when you're opening a restaurant, then your ego needs to be toned down. No, it absolutely is scary.

All that I can do, which I've done from the beginning, is stay positive. I'm planning on having 100% occupancy at some point soon, and if I have to open up with 14, I do. But I'm not far, I'm a block and a half from the place I'm at now, Birdrock is close. I've got a lot of really good people that used to work for me in fine dining that are going to come help me run this place, so the staffing is going to be great. I'm close enough to keep my thumb right on top of it, and it's a thousand-square-foot, 1920s bungalow like I'm in now, so I feel comfortable. You'll never see me back in a shopping center as long as I live, and that's where I thought I needed to be for a long time.

Birdrock Taco Shack
Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Closed Sunday-Monday. 1004 10th Ave. W., Bradenton; 941-545-9966; birdrocktacoshack.com

Some of the most popular menu items:

• The traditional pork carnitas taco, with sea salt, lime and hot sauce.

• The Peking kung pao duck taco, with cabbage and sesame.

• The edamame pineapple bang-bang taco, one of multiple vegan options, with cabbage.

• The Thai peanut brussels sprout taco, another vegan option, with caramelized shallots and sambal chile.

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