Written By Derek Herscovici
One of the most sought-after restaurant designers in the world, Ken Schwartz has made a living turning the abstract visions of iconic chefs into savory, fully functioning realities. Along the way his Tampa-based firm, SSA Foodservice Design + Consulting, has become the vanguard of adventurous eats, reputed as much for its dependability as its creativity.
“It doesn’t matter who our client is, we ask them two things: their vision of the guest experience and what they really think the guests are experiencing,” Schwartz said. “It’s our job to get those two things to be one.”
Schwartz grew up alongside the family-owned restaurant supply company his great-grandfather founded in Ybor City in 1897. Displaying a knack for inventing and design at an early age, he attended a technical high school and studied architecture “four hours a day for four years.”
“I actually designed my very first home — it got built for somebody — while I was a junior in high school,” he said.
Schwartz’s family eventually sold the restaurant supply business, but he followed his passion in college, studying architecture, economics and accounting, eventually selling his post-graduate businesses to start SSA in 1993.
SSA’s big break was the redesign of the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach, which lead to work on the Hilton Clearwater Beach, then designing the new Columbia Restaurant in Celebration, Florida. Thanks to the success of that restaurant, Schwartz was tapped to design the new 15,000 square-foot kitchen of the original Columbia in Ybor.
“After we did the addition to the Columbia in Ybor City, we realized [that] not only were people beginning to enjoy our style of service and really our expertise, but that there was a much greater opportunity out there outside the Tampa Bay area,” he said.
The Hard Rock Café selected Schwartz to work on its Orlando franchise, which, at nearly 140,000 square feet, can seat 2,000 people at once and is SSA’s largest project. Today, SSA has designed 70 different Hard Rock Cafes in far-flung places like Anchorage, Brussels and Saipan.
Since then, SSA has built a staggering resume extending from the Bay area to around the globe, including hospitals, military bases, sports venues and airports, each project more unique than the last.
An SSA signature is its one-of-a-kind “bespoke elements,” singular features combining theatre and engineering for an unforgettable experience. These range from massive seafood boilers to Korean barbecue tables to “fire pits” with skewers that orbit a flame like planets in a model solar system. All are imagined and created with SSA’s in-house fabricators and engineers.
“The stuff we’re proposing, when a client says, ‘This is great, I want to do it,’ we have to be the people who figure it out,” Schwartz said. “These things didn’t exist before.”
While researching concepts for Ulële, Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart asked Schwartz if he could create a fire pit similar to one he had seen at famous steakhouse Queue de Cheval in Montreal. Schwartz said he could, as he had actually designed the one at Queue de Cheval, a client of SSA.
The most challenging restaurant Schwartz said he designed is actually three: Bourbon Steak, Bourbon Pub and Michael Mina’s Tailgate, all created with celebrity chef Michael Mina and housed inside Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. Though Bourbon Steak and Bourbon Pub operate as a normal restaurant on most days, during “event” days like home football games and concerts, all three restaurants operate as part of the Tailgate, feeding sometimes 3,000 people in a three-hour span.
Challenged for space and budget, Mina had to scrap his plan for huge individual wood and charcoal-fired grills when it was clear the expenses for cleaning the ventilation systems and air conditioning outweighed its value.
“We were asked to cut $1 million out of the project,” Schwartz said. “In looking at ways to cut, we wanted to eliminate those solid-fuel cooking stations for something that we could use with gas to cook a lot of product but still create that kind of live cooking theater.”
Over a couple glasses of wine at Mina’s headquarters, Schwartz sketched out what would be both the solution and the cornerstone of the Mina at Levi’s Stadium: a giant, two-story rotisserie to meet the demand. The colossal rotisserie has become an icon for pilgrimaging celebrity chefs who come to take pictures beside it.
SSA gets all of their clients through word-of-mouth, something Schwartz attributes to the humility he learned years earlier.
“We’re not there to shove our ideas down anyone’s throat,” Schwartz said. “We’re there to help create an incredible guest experience and help facilitate the client in getting from a conceptual place to where their vision is up and running.”