Joshua Taylor gives us an inside look at one of the most under-the-radar new restaurants to join the downtown dining scene, one that is pushing to translate farm-to-table ethos into an affordable, approachable, and, above all, personable experience.
311 W Ashley Street
Jacksonville, Florida 32202
These days, it seems that every neighborhood in Jacksonville is vying to host the newest “dining destination”, and downtown is no exception. In just the past decade, we’ve welcomed perennial mainstays like Burrito Gallery and Cafe Nola, watched the ever-changing chameleon that is Ieyasu/Chew/Pho, and basked in left-field surprises from Olio, Chomp Chomp, and Indochine. Each of these locations has pushed to color their own little corner of the Urban Core, challenging the myth that business downtown is a fruitless struggle. And with a little chutzpah and a lot of determination they’ve all found their niche, proving time and time again that there’s a real culinary market buried somewhere below that desert of sandwich counters and sneeze guards.
Rose Sanderson has decided she will be next to take the plunge. And like several pioneers before her, she’s opted for the left-field surprise.
From the street, Avocados doesn’t appear to be a monumental new gift to the downtown food gods. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to recognize it was even there. Sandwiched underneath CityPlace and lit by a single red OPEN sign, it sits in a retail bay that has long played host to countless restaurants, their lineage connected only in theme by their varying levels of indigestibility. Heavy wooden blinds cover the expansive windows. Soft, tree-diffused sunlight floods down over the sidewalk. Across the street, a desolate parking lot seems to beckon, “Welcome to Suburbia.” But stepping off the street and into the dining room you are greeted by your first Rose Sanderson surprise.
The walls are painted a warm two-toned green to reflect the eponymous fruit from which the restaurant bears it’s name. This theme is carried on into the hardwood floors and window treatments, which mimic the stone pit. The colors here are rich and comfortable, with fall-toned table cloths and framed photos of fresh food lining the walls. Rose says she “wanted it to feel warm and comfortable and, above all else, not rushed.” You immediately feel at ease, ready to spend an hour (or three) in this haven from the bleak outside. When asked about the name Avocados, Rose says it was born over a dinner party conversation at the home of a former boss. He suggested it as a name he’d always gravitated towards if he were to open a restaurant. To her, it brought to mind freshness, and didn’t lock the cuisine down to any specific ethnicity. But don’t expect avocado in every dish on the menu. “If you go to Chili’s, is there chili in everything? No. Don’t be stupid!”
Another surprise greets you as you step into the dining room: A mission statement, displayed large and prominent across a main wall. It reads, “We strive to serve the most natural, whole foods available by purchasing our produce, meats, and cheeses from local fresh food producers; insuring the highest quality meals and helping to maintain localized economic growth.” Immediately, you begin to realize that this meal could be more than you bargained for. Apart from the establishments mentioned earlier in this review, downtown meals are hardly ever discussed using descriptors such as “natural”, “fresh”, and “quality”. And with the addition of “local”, Rose has once again upped the ante on the downtown market, charging headlong into territory now familiar only to Black Sheep, Taverna, Orsay - the farm-to-table denizens of modern Jacksonville. According to her, this local approach is the heart and soul of her restaurant, and possibly one of the first instances in the city where ingredient pedigree is actually used to lower the price of the meal. “They’re ingredients that I believe in. And unlike other restaurants, I don’t hike up the price to allot for that,” says Rose. “My food is probably cheaper than Olive Garden.”
The Triple Decker
And if anyone should know the importance of farm-fresh, it’s Rose Sanderson. After all, she grew up on a farm in Des Moines, Iowa, and understands the differences between mass market ingredients and fresh organic produce and meats. She married young, and learned to cook as a means to feed a family on an oftentimes small budget. She delighted in cooking for extended family also, sharing food during holidays and filling wicker baskets with sackfuls of cookies, and jams and jellies canned inside her dishwasher. Later in life, a bout of thyroid cancer pushed her focus further into nutrition, as she looked for ways to replenish her body naturally without the dependency on medications. This naturally led her to healthier foods, and thus her mission statement was born. “I want people to become more conscious - not health conscious, because I think that’s too broad - but just conscious about the choice to put something better in your body that doesn’t limit your range of foods.” She detests the genetically modified food trends that have become so prevalent in modern culture, railing against hormone and bacteria-infested milk and “salmon that has been injected with food dyes so that it looks like what non-farmed salmon is supposed to look like.” In her words, “I just want people to be able to come to this quaint little cafe and have an incredible meal and not have a hangover an hour later from all the hormones and high-fructose corn syrup.”
Salmon and Bacon Panini, Sweet Potato Fries
And she’s right: the hangover won’t come from unnatural fillers in the food. If anything, it will come from the food itself, served in portion sizes that would make the Cheesecake Factory blush. Items such as the Salmon and Bacon Panini, the Turkey and Avocado Panini, her famous Macaroni and Cheese, and the Walnut and Spinach Salad have become legendary amongst regulars in the short time she’s been open. Also of note are her Chicken Salads, made to order from scratch and filled with onions, celery, apples, walnut, and your choice of avocado or curry. Breakfast is similarly filling, and served from open to close everyday. Her Feta Burger has been a whirlwind success (so much so that she bumped it up from a daily special to the permanent menu), and she also prepares two soups from scratch daily to accompany the entrees, a perennial Chicken Tortilla and a Vegetarian Spicy Soup Du Jour. Even desserts alternate based on season and availability, and when I visited included Strawberry Cream Cheese Cake and Chocolate Torte.
Vegetarian Spicy Tomato Soup
Downtown has been supportive, she says, although not across the board. Most business organizations have done little to reach out. “They come and they say something, and then they never come back. Downtown Vision brought a ‘Welcome To Downtown’ kit,” she says with a shrug. But her regular customers have lessened the shock of opening in a foreign land. Still, she says, downtown has a long way to go in luring small business revenue. She cites a lesser known Usage Tax, which is a yearly fee levied on all the things that you use to run your business, inventoried and valued. “I bought these things, I paid sales tax… and now I have to pay a usage tax? My tables, my chairs, my laptop? Do I have to tax the toilet seat, too? I think they make it really hard on small businesses, because I have to pay for this license, and that license, and wait for this license. I have to pay an inspector $50 to come into my establishment and tell me if my fire hoses are in the right place. It’s the city that demands these inspections, and then I have to pay an inspector $50 every year. I think they make it really tough for small businesses. I have to pay business taxes, unemployment taxes, payroll tax, property tax, taxes on my internet, my water, electricity, gas, and now you’re going to charge me a usage tax on the things I already own?! With all the taxes in this county, there should be no homeless people. And I’m trying to create jobs for the city!” But she refuses to compromise her standards, despite the hoops she’s made to jump through. When compared to other downtown cafes, she winces. “I would rather close this restaurant than ever become a restaurant-in-a-box.”
Rose Sanderson has grand ideas about the future of Avocados, even while still in its infancy. She seems unable to allow her creation to stagnate. She talks of waking in the middle of the night with countless plans to fine-tune her cafe. She has proposed an adjoining Hookah Bar, or perhaps a Martini Bar. Maybe karaoke or open mic would bring the crowds. Or perhaps an ice cream shop. But at the end of the day, it seems her clientele are really the bottom line when it comes to her business decisions. “I want to be a person-focused restaurant over a business-focused restaurant, and that might bite me in the butt. I might not make it. But I want people to be happy with full-sized portions of food that they may be able to get at a lesser price, but with better quality… and without having to spend that much more.”
Spicy Tomato Soup
Sweet Potato Fries
Strawberry Cream Cheese Cake
Article and photos by Joshua Taylor