Foodie or not, most would recognize the national culinary trends of fresh farm-to-table offerings in restaurants, an explosion in craft brewing and even a broader mainstream interest in just eating better.
Graduates of the University of North Florida are part of the phenomenon, and many have helped shape the local food and beverage scene, which today is being taken a lot more seriously.
There are several standouts from the University who have their hand firmly in the culinary world — from Henna Bakshi, a professional food blogger/connoisseur/TV host whose food blogs and videos extend across the globe, to Tim Brack, who is carving out his own niche in craft beers, Melinda Powers, a baker and business owner, and others.
Another UNF grad, Hillary McDonald (’13, MBA), co-owner of FreshJax said, “I feel like we’re tapping into a void in the market. People are looking for more handcrafted, small-batch things and just really good stuff to try.”
As a young girl growing up in New Delhi, Henna Bakshi, ’14, used to play a game with her mother — in Bakshi’s words “an amazing cook” — while her mom was in the kitchen preparing a new dish.
“She would have me try it and then guess at least 10 ingredients that were in it,” said Bakshi.
More often than not, Bakshi was able to sniff them out. It’s that same sense of culinary curiosity and adventure that led Bakshi, who received a B.A. in communication/multimedia production from the University of North Florida, to pursue a career that allows her to share her love of food with others.
While at UNF, Bakshi pitched and created the University’s first cooking show, “The Skillet,” for Osprey TV with fellow alum and videographer Andy Leverett (’14, B.A. in communication) who has who since become her collaborator both in life and love. Bakshi recalled how the two went out to canvas Jacksonville restaurant JJ’s Bistro des Paris for their first on-air segment and, while checking out the lighting and background, dined there as well.
“I didn’t realize it was a first date, but I guess that was kind of what Andy had in the back of his mind,” said Bakshi with a laugh.
Bakshi and Leverett have been married for two years and have since moved to the Atlanta area and continue to work on projects together.
After graduating from UNF, Bakshi was hired as a news assistant for CNN. She then pitched a digital food series for HLN a spinoff cable channel of CNN called “Around the World in $40.” In it, Bakshi — who produces and hosts the series as well — shows viewers how to create global food on a budget.
“I noticed there was this gap in food content for digital [platforms],” explained Bakshi.
The episodes are targeted toward millennials who want to experiment with easy-to-make foods with an ethnic twist, and they show off Bakshi’s spunky personality and obvious love for all things culinary, especially exotic seasonings.
“Growing up, my home forever smelled like spices and tea,” she said.
That inspiration has also spurred a couple of other ventures she and Leverett are working on, including a podcast called “Real Time Cooking with Henna.”
“There are light stands and mics everywhere in my kitchen, and I just keep talking as I’m making stuff,” said Bakshi, whose personal favorite recipe is sweet potato burgers.
The couple is also planning to put out a cookbook based on the podcast. Meal preparation in the Bakshi/Leverett household is always an exercise in creativity, between Bakshi’s natural affinity for globally inspired ingredients and her husband’s penchant for the kinds of classic American comfort food he was raised on.
As for the future, Bakshi — who also continues to work at CNN — said as long as she is working to produce content around food, she will be happy.
And there’s at least one goal she can cross off her proverbial bucket list.
“I don’t know why but I’ve always wanted to be a judge for a food contest,” said Bakshi.
This past September, she got to do just that when she was invited to sit at the judges’ table for the Jekyll Island Shrimp & Grits Festival in southeast Georgia. The experience was a blast, she said, and the annual competition is just one of the reasons that she continues to be drawn her back to the region.
Walking into Tim Brack’s Really Good Beer Stop feels a little like stopping in for a drink at your best friend’s man cave — just with an insanely larger selection of craft beers.
But it’s that comfortable, laid-back spirit that pervades the Jax Beach watering hole/take-out package store. Above the nearly two dozen taps on the far wall of the space, there’s a large chalkboard that details in handwritten lettering the shop’s rotating lineup of featured brews (including variety, brand/country of origin, alcohol percentage, etc.), from stouts to IPAs, ambers to fruity spiced beers.
In addition to several barstools at the counter, long farmhouse-style tables invite tasters to linger over samples. That cozy organic vibe was very much what Brack, ’98, a UNF health science graduate, and his wife Angie had in mind when they opened the Really Good Beer Stop: a place where college students (many of them from nearby UNF) could hang out at happy hour alongside young families playing board games (provided by the shop) while they sip on a pint or two.
Another wall has shelves lined with six-packs and other assortments of beer from small-batch, in some cases, obscure breweries. Those can be purchased and taken out, as can growlers (64-ounce glass jugs) and crowlers (32-ounce cans), which are filled with any one of the store’s featured tap brews.
Brack, who lives just up the block from the store, launched the venture in October 2015 after returning to Jacksonville from the Atlanta area. Tired of his job in the medical sales field and with his growing interest in home brewing, Brack decided to take a leap of faith and open the Really Good Beer Stop. He knew the craft beer scene was growing “but there weren’t that many places with exactly this kind of concept,” Brack explained.
The business also partners with local hometown breweries like Intuition and Green Room to feature their offerings.
The store is doing well, Brack said.
“The community’s been great, and we only continue to grow,” he added.
The location offers home brewing classes and is also looking to begin food and beer pairings with local eateries (think stout and oysters).
“We’re trying to partner with more and more restaurants,” said Brack.
While the Really Good Beer Stop doesn’t currently offer its own menu, customers are encouraged to bring in their own food from outside the shop.
The Bracks are also planning to open another location.
“If we can help expose craft beer to more people in Jacksonville,” Brack said, “that’s the goal.”
Jason and Hillary McDonald
With his boyish grin and lean, fit frame, Jason McDonald looks years younger than his chronological age of 40 might suggest. The same could easily be said of his wife, Hillary, who at 33 glows with energy and wellness.
It wasn’t always that way for Jason McDonald, however. In a stressful job in the architecture industry, several years ago McDonald received a wake-up call from his doctor.
“He told me I was not in the best health,” recalled McDonald, “and that I needed to eat clean.”
He began doing just that, focusing his diet on lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as minimally processed foods.
McDonald also began exploring kripalu yoga — a practice his wife had been following for years and was teaching.
“And then I realized we have to do something to give back so others can make some of the same changes in their own lives,” said McDonald.
With a business venture in mind, Jason and Hillary enrolled in UNF with the goal of earning MBAs, both achieving the graduate degree in 2013.
The result is FreshJax, a business on Jacksonville’s Southside that touts “food, yoga and healthy living” as its slogan. The location is split between a yoga studio where McDonald heads up daily classes and a café offering smoothies, coffee and tea, gluten-free baked goods, soups, wraps, spices and other nourishment-packed products from outside vendors.
The concept for FreshJax evolved over some time. More than five years ago, Jason began experimenting with his own homemade hot sauces and mustards. He started bottling and selling them at the Riverside Arts Market. With their popularity, the couple developed a following and expanded their product line to include specialty spice blends and other items. Selling their goods at the market on weekends, the McDonalds balanced the rest of their time by working on their business out of a rented commercial kitchen in Downtown Jacksonville and also fitting in grad school classes at UNF.
Meanwhile, the couple debuted their idea for a business combining wellness classes with delicious natural foods at One Spark and received enthusiastic validation two years in a row at Jacksonville’s entrepreneurial festival.
After deciding on a location, the McDonalds opened FreshJax in the spring of 2016 and haven’t looked back. The business is doing well they say — they’re considering opening another location in Jacksonville soon — but the best part about realizing their dream is that they have been able to fulfill their own passions while filling a void in the local market.
As Hillary said, “It’s awesome to have such an immediate impact on people. They come in stressed and they leave happy. And we’re just happy to be a part of that.”
Over the years, Melinda Powers, ’16, earned a nickname that’s stuck: “the lawyer who bakes.” And while true, the moniker might seem to suggest that the former is a priority over the latter. That part is not true. Powers, who heads up the Powers Law Group, does, in fact, make a good part of her living as an attorney specializing in estate planning, copyright and trademark issues and small business development. But it’s her side business, Melinda’s Confections, which continues to drive this ambitious lady to pursue her dream of hopefully turning her baking hobby into a full-time business.
This sweet dream harkens back to the time Powers (who received a second bachelor’s degree in French studies from UNF in 2016, and also holds a professional certificate from the University in non-profit management) was about 7, growing up in Detroit, and begging her mother to let her make pancakes on a Saturday morning for the family. Though she’d loved baking and cooking for friends and family since childhood, it was only three years ago that the idea to turn that love into a business venture really began to take shape.
Powers and her cousin were sitting around the kitchen table enjoying one of Powers’ specialties, her banana pudding.
“And as soon as she took the first bite, she was like, ‘This is a business,’” recalled Powers.
Powers has since ramped up that banana pudding with the addition of her own vanilla wafers made from scratch, and stamping them with her signature “M” logo that she created in order to take her baking business to the next level.
Powers’ next stop was One Spark, the Jacksonville-based festival that provides startups with exposure and potential venture capital. She exhibited at the 2015 event. While she made thousands of samples and manned a booth at the competition, Powers said that the experience did provide some brand recognition but it did not help her fully achieve her goal of launching Melinda’s Confections in a physical storefront location.
Undeterred, Powers continues to sell her goods, which also include baked breads, quiches, fruit tarts and French éclairs, mostly through her professional network and her church community. Plans are in the works to expand her sales through an online site.
“But trust me,” said Powers, “I have bigger plans.”
Part of those plans might entail a move abroad. If Powers, always fascinated by European culture, had to envision where she might be in five years or so, it would ideally be living across the pond somewhere — hopefully, in France — walking down to the local farmers market to pick up fresh ingredients and baking delicious sweet delicacies out of her own kitchen.
“I guess I just have this old-fashioned sensibility to me,” said Powers. “I just see myself there.”