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  • Tara Crutchfield

Crave & Copper

It’s been four years since Crave & Copper first opened their doors in downtown Auburndale. The concept was born from the Florida Brewery. Established in the 70s, the Florida Brewery is the second oldest brewery still in operation in the state. Primarily a manufacturing facility, the brewery opened its doors to the public for a time, introducing a Beer Garden and Taproom at 202 Gandy Road.  


The brewery became a popular hangout, and when the opportunity came up to open an eatery downtown, they partnered with restaurant industry veterans to be sure their cuisine mirrored their “crave-able” beer. Executive Chef Matt Oakley partnered with his wife, the CFO of the Florida Brewery, Stacey Oakley, and the COO of the brewery, Julie Williams, for the restaurant. 



Crave & Copper is situated in the former Hudson Hotel, built in the 1920s. The hotel’s rooms were upstairs, now office space, and Crave & Copper is in place of its original restaurant. Stacey Oakley explained that Auburndale was a stop along the railroad back in the day. As a significant part of the town’s history, they wanted to pay homage. “It ties into the brewery because the copper kettle that sits at the beer garden was also brought down by the railroad in the 1970s,” she said. 


They spent a year turning the historic building into a rustic, modern-industrial dining space. Railroad imagery and large sliding barn doors, which can be closed to partition the restaurant, fit well within their rustic vibe. Many of the hotel’s original details have been left intact but modernized – like the ceiling, painted copper to suit their color scheme, the rehabbed bar, and the exposed brick on one of the walls. 

Spanning an entire restaurant wall just beyond the barn doors is a mural by Central Florida-based muralist Joe Starks. According to Stacey and Julie, Starks worked off a photo of the building from the 1920s. The image peers into a scene straight from Lake Ave. in the roaring 20s, the only detail bringing it back to the present is the ‘Crave & Copper’ sign. Images of Prohibition, their brewery roots, and Auburndale’s iconic water tower also appear in the piece. Starks finished the monochromatic mural with spray paint in just one weekend, finishing it with copper accents.


Stacey Oakley said the Hudson Hotel was a gathering space. They would broadcast fights on their radio outside, and people would gather around to listen. The hotel’s restaurant would host $1 Thanksgiving dinner nights for the community. “The whole basis for what they did is similar to why we wanted to do this here. It was all focused around having a community destination,” she said. “We wanted something that was going to put Auburndale on the map,” said Executive Chef Matt Oakley. In the same way that Winter Haven and Lakeland have built up their downtown with exceptional dining, shopping, and recreation – the Crave & Copper owners want to see the same thing for downtown Auburndale. Folks shouldn’t have to drive out of town for a good meal and good beer, he explained. 


“We spent an entire year inside this place before we opened, getting it ready,” Matt Oakley said. Crave & Copper opened in October 2019 and operated for just six weeks.  “And then the fire happened,” Stacey said.  


On Friday, December 13, 2019, a state trooper driving through Auburndale saw smoke billowing from the former hotel and called the fire department. The inferno, deemed an electrical fire that started in the wall, decimated their kitchen. Matt and Stacey were in Virginia to attend a concert when the fire occurred. “At 5 in the morning, we get a call saying, ‘Chef, your kitchen burned down,’” Matt said. “It didn’t really hit us until we walked into this place and saw the destruction.” 


The fire was so intense the metal shelving had melted. “We got so extremely lucky because the fire got cut essentially,” said Stacey. The CO2 tank for their soda machine is much larger than one would find in a typical restaurant as it feeds their brewery side. That CO2 line was severed, creating a curtain that held the fire from the dining room. 


Sorting through insurance was quite the process. When it was finally approved, the pandemic hit, and prices skyrocketed, causing even more trouble for the restaurateurs. “In hindsight, the fact that we were closed during COVID was somewhat a blessing,” Stacey said.  In September 2022, Crave & Copper opened for the second time. Because of the two-year difference, they were able to apply for the Community Redevelopment Grant again and utilize it for their new outdoor patio area. “We had our followers from the original opening that had been waiting in anticipation for us to get back open, and then once we did, they, of course, showed all their support. It was almost like we never left,” said the chef. Stacey agreed, adding, “Being a small town, they are so behind new things coming and love supporting it. Our regulars are amazing, and they’re spreading the word to everybody.” 



The menu hasn’t changed drastically since C&C’s inception. It boasts the same elevated pub fare as before. Chef Oakley wanted the food to be approachable while introducing folks to foods they might not have had in the area. “We try to source as much as we can from local purveyors,” he said. From local microgreens to fresh organic eggs, “We just want to do fresh, quality food.”


“It’s really about giving our community the best possible food we can at the gastropub level for this area and being able to teach these young kids who are interested in culinary and enabling them an opportunity that they probably wouldn’t get unless they were working in Orlando or Tampa,” Oakley said of his kitchen team. “My goal as a chef is to teach and share my craft. I’m not one of those chefs that like to hold all my secrets in. I’m open with my recipes. I’ll tell anyone what they are. I want people to cook and to learn how to do it right so that we have more chefs and great food in town.” Oakley is joined by Sous Chef Nick Roberts. 


This family-friendly American brewpub features up to 20 craft beers on tap, live entertainment on the weekends, and weekly lunch and dinner specials that keep guests coming back. One Crave & Copper staple is their fish dip, ideally served with a frosty glass of Polar Pilsner. Made with locally caught Lane Snapper smoked in-house with pecan wood, Chef Matt says, “It’s a traditional Florida fish dip but with my twist on it.” There are no frills, it is just plain good – like, really really good. It is served with hot sauce, lemon, and copper-dusted tortilla chips. Their proprietary copper dust is made with a spice blend from a chef-owned and operated company out of Spokane, Washington. Matt Oakley wanted to highlight the quality of the spices. He created a dry rub using garlic powder, onion powder, chili lime powder, white pepper, kosher salt, and honey granules.


Other guest favorites include the hearty Cobb Salad, and the Nashville Hot Honey Chicken Sandwich made with buttermilk brined chicken breast topped with house-made pickles and Nashville hot honey sauce. 


Crave & Copper recently rolled out their fall menu with seasonal offerings like an oven-roasted turkey sandwich with thinly sliced challah, cheddar cheese, onion jam, herb mayo, and arugula. Another autumnal addition is the beer-braised bratwurst with sauteed peppers and onions and beer-infused whole-grain mustard. Chef Matt noted that they revamped their signature garbage plate to be less messy. Tots are drizzled with copper sauce and topped with candied bacon, scallions, and TFB beer cheese sauce.  



In addition to crave-worthy bites, C&C has more than a few drinks to imbibe. Florida Brewery COO Julie Williams discussed their five-barrel brew system at Crave & Copper. Three fermenters turn yeast into alcohol, and one bright beer tank holds finished product ready to be kegged. “This is what we consider our research and development. The big brewery down the street, one batch is 300 barrels,” she said. “This gives us the chance to use a little more creativity on a small batch.”


Crave & Copper has up to twenty rotating beers on tap. Stacey Oakley said that their beers cater to the traditional lager style and are made intentionally drinkable for Florida – whether you’re boating, fishing, or backyard barbequing. They added 863 Light, their version of an American Standard Lager, and 863 Ultra, which she described as a more “calorie-conscious American lager” to the menu. Their best-selling beer, Beach Me Up, started as a seasonal brew. The crisp grapefruit shandy earned a fixed spot on the menu due to demand. Post-fire, Crave, and Copper honored the brave firefighters with a beer of their own called Engine 421, a light American lager. 


Photography by Amy Sexson

 

Crave & Copper

117 E Lake Ave, Auburndale

(863) 968-2971

IG @craveandcopper

FB: Crave and Copper

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