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Funky Buddha Brewery: Now Open! Can It Anchor a Culinary District in Oakland Park?

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.

Dekaj, an Albanian who came to South Florida in 1996, speaks in a thick, staccato accent. "They explained the farmers' market, the brewery, the culinary institute and I thought it was a good idea," he says. "I want to be a part of that change."

Dekaj is spending about $500,000, mostly on commercial baking equipment, for the new space. He'll have a small café similar to the Wilton Manors outpost, but his focus will be a commercial bakery to support a growing wholesale and catering service.

"I haven't gone to Las Olas for a long time; it's the same stuck-up restaurants," says Dekaj. "Here I see people thinking outside of the box, and that could change the way we eat."

Still, there are chances for the plan to go off-track. A small café called By Jamie opened in the district in late 2012 and closed just months later. The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale could decline the option to start a culinary program. It could take longer for the city to rev up and find vendors for the open-air market. All the while, it will require city investment.

Perhaps the biggest gambler at the table is Ryan Sentz, who owns the Funky Buddha with his brother K.C. They are spending nearly $1.5 million on their flagship brewery, which is ten times larger than the Boca Raton brewpub. The only incentive they got from Oakland Park was a few thousand dollars toward signage.

Like Dekaj, Sentz says he bought into Oakland Park and RMA's vision.

Speaking in a deep, calm voice 48 hours before the brewery opened, Sentz said, "As a brewery, we try to emphasize the culinary aspect of our brewing. [City officials] want to use us as an anchor to attract other people."

Inside the Buddha's almost 20,000 square feet is a 30-barrel brewing system that will produce anywhere from 900 to 1,800 gallons at a time. The vast majority of it will be distributed across the state and perhaps one day throughout the Southeast.

"One of the biggest challenges in any redevelopment strategy is finding that first person," says McCormick, of RMA. "Nobody wants to be that first person, who I call the 'It Guy,' because that's the one that has the most vision and in a sense is taking the most risk."

Sentz, who went to school to become a psychologist, seems indifferent to the great weight on his shoulders. He doesn't talk about a five-year plan, future upgrades to the brewing system, or how many bars he hopes will one day sell Funky Buddha beer.

"My goal is to do what we do well and everything else will fall into place," he says. "I think as soon as you put up expectations is when you get into trouble."

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Zachary Fagenson is the restaurant critic for Miami New Times, and proud to report a cholesterol level of 172.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson

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