What began as a small sandwich shop and catering business 10 years ago, has grown into a beloved Lakeland standard. We all love it, we meet our friends there, have first dates there, stop for a drink and share a snack or slow down with brunch and mimosas. It’s a local favorite that’s celebrating 10 years, so we sat down with owner and chef, Tina Calhoon to hear how it all began.
Tina Calhoon was born in Jacksonville and knows the restaurant business inside and out. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 16, so I’ve got years of experience and a background with it all. I opened my first one at 21, it was a hotel restaurant, bar and catering facility for 350 people. I got started early and I had a three-month old on my hip the whole time,“ she said with a big smile and a hearty laugh. With several restaurants going at the same time in Little Rock, she soon found herself a single mom. Tina made the move back to Florida and into the corporate world of restaurants at a Bennigans.
Tina’s biggest supporter is her husband, Tim Calhoon. They started Frescos because his company was going through a major downsizing 10 years ago. “We were in Lakeland, what would he do after being at the same job for 28 years? The only thing I know is restaurants. I knew we can get it going and get it going good,” she said. And that they did! The restaurant has grown in size almost every year since. Tim works at another job 40 hours a week and then works at the restaurant another 40 hours. With both of them pulling 16-hour days, you can see the love and passion they have for Frescos and for the people of Lakeland.
“In all actuality, we were never planning on growing to the size that we are. Now, the restaurant has just gotten astronomical and the catering side has gotten astronomical.” Tina went on to explain they have three banquet rooms onsite, full catering off site for both private and corporate clients and she’s a private chef for clients when they’re in town. They know how to stay busy!
Wanting to be more in the background when Frescos opened, Tina took over the kitchen. “I’m not culinarily trained, I’ve just learned over the years how to cook. I do everything from Ethiopian to Indian to Latin food, straight from scratch. Over the years of being able to be very diverse with the stuff that we do, it gives us the ability to really open up and play with a lot of different things.” She explained that in the restaurant’s beginning, they continued to grow and along with that could change the “vibe” along the way. “It’s always been Frescos but it kind of kept growing. Starting as more of a sandwich shop to offering dinners with beer and wine for a couple of years.” After adding even more space, they took on a full liquor license and then everything changed.
“We were the first boutique restaurant in Lakeland. We were trying to be everything to everybody. So the first seven or eight years we did everything like Asian, Latin, Cuban, it was a very diverse menu to try and take care of the needs of all the guests,” she said. Over the last couple of years, with the explosion of restaurants in Lakeland, they’ve been able to get back to their comfort zone. “Southern Boutique, it’s where my passion is really at. When we switched to more of a southern kitchen a couple of years ago, it worked out because Lakeland was growing and new restaurants were popping up,” she said now they could focus.
“This is my niche, it’s my comfort zone. With that passion, the business grew rapidly,” she said with a smile. “I wanted it to be food that you grew up with, things that you remember as a child, like collard greens, black eyed peas, grouper. The layers of our dishes are complex so when you eat, you can remember back to a time when Mom would cook for you. You can remember sitting at the dining room table eating something like that.” Tina creates dishes thoughtfully, balancing sweet, salty and savory to give you an “explosion of flavors.”
An example of this would be the popular Atlantic Seared Salmon. Tina described it as sweet, savory and creamy with the maple glazed salmon served over top of a roasted root vegetable hash and drizzled with a dijon cream sauce. The pork chops are also popular with pork belly cracklins, black eyed peas and a cornbread and andouille stuffing. Tina said, “It makes you feel at home.”
There is one dish that has stayed on the menu for the entire 10 years. “It’s our Knuckle Sandwich. It’s like jambalaya on a hoagie bun! It’s chicken, kielbasa, onions, shrimp, smothered in cheese on a bun. We’ve never taken it off the menu, people would kill us, I think, if we did!”
Over the last 10 years, what have they learned? “There are a lot of highs and lows when you own your own business.” Trying not to show the struggle was important, but now that they’re 10 years in and successful, it’s easier to vocalize the struggle that once was. Tina Reflected on the time they had to sell a vehicle to make payroll. They’ve gone through the trials and tribulations and know how hard it is to ask for help when you need it. She encourages an open door policy, “You can ask us anything, we’re always willing to help. That’s always been the biggest thing,” she explained. “We started out with five employees and now we have 45. Most people don’t realize the level of our staff. I still pull 16-hour days and we work seven days a week because of the supply and demand of our clients. They expect to have us here when they want us and that’s a good thing!”
To celebrate their 10th Anniversary, they pulled out all the stops for the guests. They gave out prizes, had specials like $10 flights, coupons for $10 off your tab and ten tables even walked away with the Frescos taking care of their tab. “We had giveaways thanking everyone for what they’ve done and for sticking with us for 10 years. Without the support of our clients, or the neighborhood and town, it’s very hard to succeed,” Tina said with a look of nostalgia in her eyes.
132 S. Kentucky Ave
Lakeland, Fl 33801
863-683-5267 / Restaurant
863-608-1347 / Catering