Maguire Wise (background) keeps the doors open late at Magpies Modern General Store — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
It's a given when I’m spending time in Sanford with Dan Ping.
We walk from Rabbitfoot Records & Coffee Lounge over to the Tennessee Truffle for lunch. We leave empty whiskey glasses on the bar at the Imperial for soak-it-up poutine across the way at the Smiling Bison. It’s always the same.
“Hey, Dan!” someone inevitably shouts. They come from all walks – business owners, city councilmen, regulars at his popular karaoke/trivia night at the West End Trading Company. “How are you, today?”
“Dan-tastic, thanks!” he’ll reply, or some other nicety. A minute or two of cheery catch-up banter follows suit before we ease on down the road.
Ping is the founder and editor of The Bokey, a website dedicated to the news and happenings of Sanford, Fla. and a bit of the surrounding Seminole County community. Ping is a Southern gentleman, a native of Oakridge, Tenn., but he’s been in Sanford for 18 years – the first six or so wearing multiple hats for the Sanford Herald. In this role, he was able to really get to know his adopted home: the Bokey (pronounced as if two words, emphasis on the second, as in “low key”).
Sanford natives sometimes call themselves “Bokey,” as well, much in the way Florida Keys natives call themselves “Conchs.”
The Bokey's Dan Ping rides the bench outside Magpies Modern General — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
“I’ve seen it both ways,” Ping says of the term, “as one word or two – Bo Key – and it has its origins in the black community.” Originally, it was a reference to the now-defunct town of Goldsboro, once its own city. Twenty years after its incorporation, it was wiped off the map, says Ping, via the design of neighboring Sanford’s white politicians.
“In 1911,” Ping explains, “Forrest Lake, who would be Sanford’s mayor about 11 different times in the early 1900s, was a state representative for this area. He wanted to grow Sanford, west in particular, but Goldsboro was in the way.”
Lake convinced his cronies in the legislature to abolish the charter for the city of Goldsboro along with that of Sanford and then recreated a new one in which Sanford could absorb the other town.
“You have to put it against the backdrop of the times,” Ping says. “Jim Crow was alive and well.”
Goldsboro was founded in 1891 by the black community. It had its own government, its own post office and its own soul. The forced incorporation upset its residents very much.
And “Bokey” was their term, per Ping (and the curators of Sanford’s Goldsboro Museum). It most likely began as a term of endearment for the town, a nickname created by the many migrant workers who traveled through on the Coastline Railroad, picking fruits and vegetables for farms up and down the coast.
Had Goldsboro survived, it would be the second-oldest black city in America.
"Bokey" went through an evolution, says Ping, perhaps becoming incorporated in the local lexicon after the desegregation of the local high schools, and in recent years has become a slang term for “local.”
“If you’re local, you’re Bokey,” he explains. “I like to think of it as a reverse-takeover. Sanford unfairly took over Goldsboro, and now a Goldsboro word is taking over Sanford. It’s poetic justice.”
Ping admits his newspaper background has made his face a recognizable one in downtown, but says these greetings are quite common among the longtime residents in walkable historic downtown. Even so, it’s altogether charming to someone with a big-city background. To me, he’s like the commissioner of a lovely, small Southern town. I can’t help pulling his leg.
“You’re like Boss Hogg,” I say.
Ping laughs. “Where in the hell is my white Cadillac?!”
The Tennessee Truffle's BLTE, side of tomato mac — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Sanford, for years, has been on the upswing.
Its quaint downtown, set alongside the vast blue of Lake Monroe, is something special, with beautiful brick streets that culminate in a charming town square, an iconic clock standing in its center. For years it was an antiquing hot spot – First Street was lined with them – but that reached its peak about a decade ago.
Since then, new businesses have been on the rise and a host of events – farmers markets, art walks and Alive After Five, a monthly street party, among them – turn out throngs of locals from throughout the Orlando metro, many eager to peruse the indie businesses whose goods and services have been getting massive word-of-mouth.
These folks are among the makers of Sanford.
Magpies Modern General Store
Making holiday (gifts) bright: Magpies Maguire Wise — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
A relative noob amid the growth of a town that has seen some of Orlando’s most popular haunts create second homes, this shop is a catch-all: natural cleaning and body care products, handmade jewelry, home décor items, clothing – much of it locally sourced, all of it unique. Magpies' creator is Maguire Wise.
Wise, who operated a women’s boutique in Santa Fe, has been itching to open a shop for quite some time; she looks for locally made items as often as possible. And after stints working at the town's Welcome Center feeling out visitor interest, she felt the time was finally right to open the doors.
“All these out-of-towners who come here, they love this town – ‘it’s so adorable, it’s so cute!’ Our neighbors around Sanford are just now discovering it, especially the younger generations looking outside the norm.”
Customers discovering Magpies, says Wise, liken it to a shop they’d find in places like Asheville, N.C. or Boulder, Colo. She says Sanford should embrace that idea.
“Austin has ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ and Sanford could do that, as well. Remain unique, different, special.”
Sanford Brewing Company
Making beer: Bo Hallowes mans the SBC taps — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
This new beer-lover’s outpost opened its doors the day after Hurricane Matthew roared past. And when word got out, says Christopher Esser, they were packed.
“Eight hours. Wall-to-wall people. And it really showed the love, the community and the people coming in to support us. We were just getting our feet wet in the business and everyone was so patient, so nice, and gave us some great reviews.”
Esser, one of four partners at Sanford Brewing Company, is a 25-year veteran of the computer science field – defense contracting, networks, high-end databases, enterprise architecture. Now, he makes beer.
“I wanted a challenge,” he says. “I wanted something new.”
So he and his wife, Robyn, who handles social media and the restaurant’s look and feel; stepbrother, Bo Hallowes, who has experience in catering and hospitality; and Allan Jackson, whose skill set includes small business and brewing, made the dream happen.
Esser and Jackson are the brewmasters here, hobbyists gone pro. Esser describes himself as process-driven – fueled by the chemistry, biology and mechanics of beer making. Jackson is the recipe maven. In the tanks at press time were a vanilla porter and a Florida wildflower honey IPA.
Bringing the business to Sanford, where the Essers moved from nearby Maitland four years ago, he says, made lots of sense after a bit of research.
“We saw the city was investing in this street specifically. They did the streetscape just shortly after we moved here. They lit it up, trying to encourage new businesses to invest. And right as this building came available we were tossing around the idea of opening up a brewery.”
Esser and partners did their due diligence, crunching the drive-by and weekend visitor numbers. They looked at the parking situation. And they determined that Sanford was definitely on the rise.
“There are other cities in the area that have hit their peak,” he says, speaking of the density. “There’s not a lot of headroom left. Sanford wanted to invest, wanted to grow, wanted to do what was necessary to get businesses in….”
And craft beer emporiums are among them.
Drink your way around Sanford with this passport and you, too, can claim this cool, free tee — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
“It’s a community!” says Esser. “We have Wops Hops brewery, Inner Compass Brewing down the street, Celery City Craft, West End and farther down, the Imperial at Washburn Imports. We’ve hit a critical mass.”
Esser now sees folks coming to Sanford on the weekends to do their own pub crawls, grabbing a drink and a bite at each.
In fact, SBC is part of a new Downtown Sanford Small World “passport.” With six local businesses participating, folks who make any purchase at all six within a two-week period can claim a cool, free, city-themed shirt they can pick up at the Sanford Homebrew Shop.
SBC has paid a great deal of attention to its ample menu, as well, and looks to attract families and retirees as easily as twenty-somethings. They even have a Future Brewers (kids) menu.
“The first weekend we had people asking for high chairs,” he laughs. “It wasn’t something I was expecting. In my mind I’m thinking, we’re a brewery – but we do have a killer mac and cheese.”
The Tennessee Truffle
Making gravy: Chef Nat Russell mans the counter at the Tennessee Truffle — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Memphis native and Sanford resident Nat Russell had begun to feel like it was time to strike out on his own.
“It was like, ‘I have to do something now or I don’t know if I ever will,’” he explains. And so when a rustic, little spot on First Avenue sort of fell into his lap, the former Executive Chef of Winter Park’s Café de France knew it was time to make a move.
The result: a butter-infused breakfast/lunch spot that captures the deliciously clogged heart of Dixie in a mason jar.
“I love eating sandwiches at night; when I come home that’s all I eat,” says Russell, “I thought what’s better, being from Memphis, than coming up with a sandwich place – and what’s better than biscuits – that’s a good vehicle to your mouth!”
While staple sammies like the BLT (add an E and you get a runny fried egg courtesy of the local and lauded Lake Meadow Farms) and the chicken breast with pickled zucchini tempt at lunch, you’d be surprised what other specials you can sop up on a biscuit on a given day.
How does braised Great Range bison short ribs with carrot ginger puree sound? Or roasted pork loin rubbed with porcini and Aleppo pepper, pickled red onion and apple butter? Or, heck, you can just get ‘em slathered with pork-and-fennel gravy.
Russell’s got an eye to add dinner, too. Thus far the Truffle’s wine dinners – from corporate dinners for 40 to romantic buyouts for a killer, multi-course date night ($400) – have been doing well, keeping the place afloat amid the critical first year.
“The response to my food has been amazing,” says Russell, who also worked at Park Avenue favorite, LUMA for five years. “My favorite things to make are Italian food and French, which I’ve been doing for so long now you’ll see it in my food.”
Russell, who’s lived in Sanford for a decade, saw the tipping point for the town about a year ago. “A lot of new bars and restaurants were popping up and I could see the town was about to pick up, the time was ripe.” The Tennessee Truffle began as a pop-up and with great reviews and word-of-mouth has begun growing roots. With new housing planned just across the street, Russell is optimistic.
“In three years I can see this place being a destination. Everyone is talking about it. I think it can be the next Winter Park.”
Park Avenue’s fancy-pants tenants have loot to spend – Pottery Barn, Lily Pulitzer, Williams-Sonoma. Does he see the small-town appeal fading as rents rise?
“Well, if you see a Gap or a Restoration Hardware, then it’s a little too much. You want to stay something of a hidden gem, but successful enough that everyone, the small businesses, will be able to survive.”
The fabric of Sanford is its small businesses, each one adding volume to a rising tide that’s slowly, steadily lifting all the boats. You’ll find the proof over on the shelves of Magpies Modern General, where the Tennessee Truffle’s newest offering – pickled veggies in comely jars made for down-homey gift baskets – were set down just the day before.
Both Wise and Russell, and really all of Sanford’s makers, have a vested interest in having holiday shoppers on hand to snatch them up.