Christine Barone’s parents often clip and send her local news stories about the new True Food Kitchen at Midtown Tampa, the $500 million mixed-use development just off Interstate 275 and N Dale Mabry Highway.
“Every single update on Midtown,” she said.
She’s happy to get them, because she’s also excited for the new restaurant, a health-focused fast-casual chain founded by wellness guru Andrew Weil and backed by Oprah Winfrey.
That said, Barone doesn’t need the clippings to stay up to date on True Food Kitchen.
She is, after all, the company’s CEO.
“I have been looking forward to this restaurant for such a long time,” said Barone, a Plant High School graduate whose parents have lived in Tampa since the ‘80s. “My whole team knows, ‘Oh, it’s Christine’s hometown!’ My parents go by and have looked at the restaurant like every single day since it’s been built.”
When True Food Kitchen opens Feb. 28, Barone, who now lives in Arizona, will be there with friends and family at her side. The chain’s 40th restaurant, and fifth in Florida, feels like “a family affair,” she said, “so it feels really special.”
It isn’t exactly the path Barone, 48, saw for herself when she graduated from Plant a few years after her family moved to Tampa. Barone was a high school math whiz who earned applied mathematics and business degrees from Harvard, and worked as a financial analyst at Raymond James Financial and Bain & Company after graduation.
At Bain, she dealt with a lot of consumer-facing businesses, working with them to get past roadblocks to growth.
“I liked helping to figure out the future that you can’t define through finance and math, and thinking through, ‘How do you figure out what people want before they even know they want it? How do you map out the future?’” she said.
That led to a role at Starbucks, where she headed up the company’s food division. It’s also where she was when she first ate at True Food Kitchen, which launched in Phoenix in 2008.
“That optimism I felt in the restaurant was like, ‘This is so cool; I want other people to feel this way and discover new ingredients,’” she said. “I absolutely loved the food and everything about it, but even more so, how do we delight our guests? How do I figure out how to put something new on the menu that surprises you, and makes it feel like more than just a dinner?”
That was partly Weil’s goal with the first True Food Kitchen. The 79-year-old doctor, author and pioneer in alternative and integrative medicine envisioned True Foods as a source for “consciously-sourced seasonal ingredients,” including organic, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-friendly options.
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The health angle also caught Winfrey’s eye after she dined at a True Food Kitchen. She became an investor and board member in 2018, kicking its growth into overdrive while remaining largely hands-off.
“As you might guess, she has a very wide range of things that she’s involved in, so I do not speak with her that often,” Barone said. “But obviously, being a female business leader, it’s incredible to have any time with her to really understand how she’s built her business enterprise, and all of the care that she’s taken to get there, and the attention to detail to get there. That, for me, is a very special opportunity.”
Tampa had been on True Food Kitchen’s radar since “well before COVID,” Barone said, particularly given her knowledge of the area. She’d considered putting a restaurant in Hyde Park or South Tampa, but realized Midtown’s outdoor community-like vibe meshed with the True Food mission.
“We were one of the first to sign up,” she said. “When the Midtown project was first being developed, thinking through that that’s where the Whole Foods would be, and the REI, it just really felt like a great place to put the True Food as well.”
While Barone doesn’t have a culinary background herself, her business leadership has helped steer True Food Kitchen through the pandemic without closing restaurants, even while dealing with supply-chain shortages and the rising cost of labor.
“I’m in every single tasting, helping to direct and guide the menu,” she said. “I am not a chef, but certainly, I am an avid lover of new trends in food and what we can try. Dr. Weil will help us think through functional ingredients and what might lower your blood sugar while eating it. My role is to bring all of that together.”
The free-standing Tampa restaurant will seat more than 130 indoors and outdoors, with a bar and patio that’ll host yoga classes and other health-focused events. It’s hitting Tampa — and specifically a new and growing part of Tampa — at exactly the right time, Barone said.
“You’ve got population growth, you have a lot of people moving in, there’s new jobs being created — for us, that’s a great environment to go into,” she said. “Omicron certainly hit the restaurant industry again, but I do think, from all that we’re seeing, that things should be pretty good for at least the next three to six months. They’re saying we’ll be in a bit of a clear place. And I think people are excited to get back out and see each other.”