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In a serious case of if-you-build-it-they-will-come, more than 4,000 people turned out Saturday for the grand opening of the Funky Buddha Brewery — the first commercial craft brewery in Broward County. Not only did they come; they drank almost all the beer. As 6 p.m. neared, hundreds inched closer to the bar, fidgeting and checking the time until the moment bartenders tapped the special releases: Blueberry Cobbler Ale and Nib Smuggler Chocolate Porter. By closing time, owners were saying they'd almost run out of all the beers from two dozen taps — from a smooth yet pungent Hop Gun India Pale Ale to a citrusy, easy-drinking Florida Hefeweizen.
The Funky Buddha brand started out six years ago with a cozy lounge in Boca Raton with dim lighting, comfy couches, hookah pipes, and live music and comedy — and a small microbrewery operation. After runaway success with the beer-making — flavors became a hit at national beer festivals and among beer bloggers — the Funky Buddha decided to aim higher. The intention now is to mass-produce and distribute kegs, first to restaurants around the state, then the Southeast.
Bottles and six-packs may follow one day, but for now, drinkers can sample the Buddha's beers in the brewery's tap room, which is the size of a high school gym and looks almost the same. Simple black industrial lights hang from a high ceiling, and five flat-screen TVs list the beers on offer. Rows of growlers are etched with the silhouette of a meditating Buddha, and dozens of glass goblets bear the names of those who pay $50 annually to be part of the brewery's Snifter Club. In a side room, people can play bocce ball and cornhole. Viewable through eight-foot-by-four-foot windows from the tap room are the stars of the operation: four stainless-steel fermenting vats.
If this seems like a perfect ending to a beautiful dream, wait.
Now imagine this culinary fantasy: After you've downed a few beers, you step out of the brewery and stroll to neighboring, locally owned restaurants to grab a bite. You take only a few steps to a 30,000-square-foot green market where South Florida farmers sell bright, sweet tomatoes in the winter and succulent mangoes and lychees in the summer. Attached is a bakery that every morning puts out hot, crusty loaves for the average joe and sends nearby restaurants their daily supplies.
It sounds incredible because it might be. This isn't Seattle or Austin. It's Oakland Park, Fort Lauderdale's homely neighbor.
But so far, the city's plans for a culinary Disneyland are moving remarkably swiftly. While city planners often spend eons squabbling over plans and cobbling together funds to develop municipal marketplaces, Oakland Park's vision reaches back to the ancient days of 2011. And already, here we are — the Funky Buddha built and in business.
The area bounded by NE 40th Street to the north and Oakland Park Boulevard to the south and 11th and 13th avenues to the east and west respectively, is now officially known as the Oakland Park Culinary Arts District. At its heart is the privately owned, 180,000-square-foot Oakland Station, once a Sears warehouse, now subdivided for multiple tenants. The brewery is located inside, and the city hopes more businesses will follow.
The area is fresh off of being rezoned, allowing for a number of restaurants and food businesses. An urban farm in the northern part of Jaco Pastorius Park is slated to open this fall. The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale is being courted to open a culinary school nearby. City officials say they are fast-tracking permitting for any business that fits the vision and wants to move in.
There's $50,000 set aside for marketing annually. There's $100,000 more of incentives being offered to help new businesses cover construction costs like new façades or signage. The city has a five-year, $250,000 agreement with Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA), a consulting company whose founder helped rebirth Atlantic Avenue, the thriving restaurant district in downtown Delray Beach.
Will the idea succeed? Proponents say Oakland Park has a few aces up its sleeve. It's not just banking on the fickle restaurant industry; the brewery, nearby kitchen supply stores, and the planned culinary institute won't be dependent solely upon foot traffic.
"In Oakland Park, there is an authentic, underlying cluster of businesses, many that people [don't] even know about," says Sharon McCormick, vice president of marketing for RMA. Kitchen 953 is a shared commercial kitchen on East Oakland Park Boulevard, and popular catering companies By Word of Mouth and Hughes Kitchen sit nearby. "There's a store in the area that only sells knives," says McCormick.
Advocates for the culinary district say more eateries will pop up once savvy restaurateurs realize the benefits of being within walking distance of a market, a brewery, and culinary-school interns who will work cheaply. If Oakland Park lands the school and gets the market running, the culinary-arts district could rival any South Florida food destination.
Peter Dekaj, owner of Stork's Bakery in Wilton Manors, liked the idea of the city's clustering and supporting small businesses. He signed on to put Stork's next location in the culinary district.