Update on April 1 at 9:51 a.m.: The story was corrected to include that Trimark Properties leases the location of Midpoint Park and Eatery from the University of Florida.
Many local Gainesville restaurants continue to close to make way for apartment buildings. While venues such as Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria and Leonardo’s Pizza were shutting down, Midpoint Park and Eatery opened in the Innovation District adjacent to the University of Florida in March of 2021. Despite facing the normal challenges of new restaurants coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Midpoint has thrived over the past year as a popular meal and hangout spot.
Nestled in its strategic location close to UF, Midpoint Park and Eatery stemmed from an idea by employees of Trimark Properties, which leases the land from the university. They realized there weren’t enough suitable food options nearby for people who lived and worked in the immediate area. So, they took matters into their own hands. Drawing inspiration from places such as Sparkman Wharf in Tampa and Boxi Park in Orlando, the company decided to build a food park.
“We came up with the idea of building a permanent food park that wasn’t so permanent, that was capable of being moved if absolutely necessary,” director of commercial leasing Matt Luedecke said.
Luedecke said they looked at multiple options for physical restaurants in the park, including shipping containers converted into kitchens. Trimark decided on permanently parked trailers. These trailers give smaller restaurants a cheaper alternative to opening up their brick-and-mortar kitchens, which is a very risky investment. According to CNBC.com, about 60% of restaurants fail within their first year, and 80% do not make it to their fifth anniversary. Luedecke said Midpoint provided a low barrier of entry for new restaurant owners, so they did not have to take out a loan or borrow money from family.
Despite the seemingly safer proposition, Midpoint has still struggled with restaurant failures since its opening on March 1, 2021. Two trailers — Keller’s Kitchen and Da Kine Poke — have closed over the last year due to various reasons. However, the park has been quick to recover and now has four different options in its confines: Plantology, Mexi Cocina, Zen Asian Street Eats and the newly opened Scuola Pizza.
Plantology has operated out of Midpoint since July 1, but owner Ryan Strandjord said it was a six- or seven-month process before it could finally move in.
“At two different occasions we thought we were going to be able to move in and we couldn’t,” Strandjord said. “Then it just sort of came together right at the end in kind of a fury and sort of worked out very serendipitously,” Strandjord said.
Plantology had its eyes on the Innovation District due to its pristine location right next to the UF campus. He said Midpoint wanted something unique and was positive his all-vegan restaurant would provide that to the park.
“We figured that it would be a good opportunity to get some people to open their minds to the possibilities of eating plant-based,” Strandjord said.
Opening in July of 2021 meant dealing with the challenges of COVID-19. Strandjord previously owned a restaurant in Jacksonville called Murray Hillbilly, so he was well versed in the supply chain and staffing issues the pandemic brought. However, he said Midpoint had an advantage most restaurants didn’t have: It was outdoors.
Strandjord said Midpoint was a safer option in his mind because of the outdoor seating. Luedecke echoed that sentiment, saying the park was able to stay on schedule for its March 2021 opening despite supply issues stemming from the pandemic. He said people were excited about the prospect of having a meal outside.
“It gave them an option of a place they can go and eat and still feel safe,” Luedecke said. “I don’t want to say it benefited from COVID, but it was less frightening to open during COVID for us than it was for a more traditional sit-down restaurant.”
The challenges of COVID-19 aside, the park has had to overcome quite a few unique hurdles over the last year. Of course, many of them revolve around the often-fickle Mother Nature.
“We have to contend with the Florida weather,” Luedecke said. “So, you know, we had a bit of a downpour in the area, and I found that most of our mulch was carried away… I wouldn’t say that we’ve had very many massive issues, just different types.”
When the sun is out, the outdoor appeal is a major draw to customers. UF sophomores Ashley Herman and MacKenzie Mazer both said they love the outdoor aspect and the convenience of Midpoint’s location.
“It’s close to our sorority house, so it’s an easy walk,” Mazer said. “It’s not out of the way; I don’t have to worry about driving here or finding a place to park.”
Zen Asian Street Eats only opened up its location at Midpoint a month ago, but one of its employees, Kat Beaucage, can already tell it’s very different from a normal restaurant environment. Beaucage had previously worked in Zen Asian’s more prototypical restaurant but said she loves working at Midpoint.
“The vibes are a lot lighter if that makes sense,” Beaucage said. “It’s less interaction with people, but at the same time, it’s a lot lighter of interaction.”
That lighter domain has made Midpoint more than just an eating location. Luedecke said he has been impressed with how the park has operated as an event space. Midpoint offers a website where patrons can reserve space for parties and various events.
“I think that it allows for people that may not go to a traditional event that’s indoors to feel comfortable going and knowing that they can socially distance,” Luedecke said. “Having four restaurants there allows for people to say, ‘we don’t have to have one caterer, we don’t have to choose between one menu item, we can have all of these here.’”
Luedecke said the park offers a meal ticket for events that can be used at any of the restaurants, providing more variety than a typical venue. He said the park has been such a popular event space that someone even inquired about hosting a wedding on the grounds.
After looking back on the success of the past year, Luedecke said Midpoint has many plans for the future. Trimark wants to build a covered stage to host live music at events, and they are working with their vendors to begin selling alcohol.
Luedecke said he wants the future of Midpoint Park and Eatery to be more than just a lunch spot.
“It’s becoming more of a space where I think people feel comfortable they can go and spend a quality amount of time,” Luedecke said. “It’s a place where I can go and spend a couple of hours.”