Florida Keys Business
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Southern(most) comfort food
Firefly offers new take on old favorites

Chef Michael Price recognized the fact that Asian cuisine coming from a guy with a North Georgia drawl, however delicious, would be less than authentic.

So when opening their first restaurant, Price and Tricia Coyne, partners in both business and love, decided to stick with what they know. And the two Georgia natives -- along with everyone who's ever eaten below the Mason-Dixon Line -- know more than a thing or two about biscuits, gravy, friend chicken, barbecue and all things finger-lickin' good.

They know about the fleeting twinkle of fireflies on a hot summer night, the stain of red Georgia clay on new white sneakers, the smell of biscuits rising in the oven and the sound of green tomatoes sizzling in seasoned cast iron skillet.

Those tastes, flavors and Southern memories are the basis of Firefly Southern Kitchen, the newest addition to Petronia Street's burgeoning restaurant row, and for Price and Coyne, literally a dream come true.

The restaurant, complete with logo, menu, price points and staffing levels, started as a school project -- seriously.

After getting a degree in marine biology from UCLA, Coyne watched funding and jobs dry up as the economy tanked.

"I knew I needed to do something else; something I loved that would also get me a job," said Coyne, who returned to her home state of Georgia and enrolled in culinary school in Atlanta, where she met Price.

Coyne was pursuing a food and beverage management degree, while Price was creating recipes in the kitchen, although there was a lot of overlap in training and classes. Coyne is also a formally trained, certified chef, and Price learned the business workings of the industry.

"Firefly started as a culinary school "capstone" project," Coyne said. "Part of the schooling requires that you create and design a business in your mind, and that concept follows you throughout the program in all your classes."

She designed a logo for a marketing class. She had to plan a menu in menu-development class, and calculate profit and loss statements in financial management classes.

"Firefly is literally a dream come true," Coyne said. "I'm using the employee handbook I created in my Human Resources class four years ago."

After graduating, the couple decided to move to Key West, where Coyne's parents once owned a vacation home. But they didn't jump the gun when it came to opening their own eatery.

"I'd spent a lot of time here as a kid, and I knew how tight this community is," Coyne said. "We didn't want to be those people who just show up from out of town and think they know everything about the community and opening a restaurant."

So the pair worked in local restaurants for two years while planning their own. Coyne was at Latitudes while Price was at Louie's Backyard, where he met Russ Ferstle, who is now the chef de cuisine at Firefly Southern Kitchen. Pastry Chef Jordan Keeton now spends half of his week at Louie's and half at Firefly, which now serves Keeton's mom's award-winning Key lime cake.

When the location at 223 Petronia St., formerly Colombian Grace restaurant, became available, they took the plunge and opened Firefly on Oct. 16 just in time for Goombay.

"We just fell in love with this neighborhood, and to be situated between Blue Heaven and Santiago's Bodega was a perfect fit," Coyne said. "Petronia Street is really becoming its own 'restaurant row' and with our emphasis on Southern cuisine, we could really fill a niche that wasn't represented."

The name comes from Coyne's and Price's memories of Georgia summers, when fireflies flickered through hot summer skies. And the menu is a nostalgic recollection of everyone's Southern grandma's country cooking.

"We do brunch every day from 10 to 2, because who doesn't want to be able to get biscuits and gravy seven days a week?" she said.

Then there's "snack time" from 2 to 6 p.m. before "supper." Snack time features fried green tomatoes, boiled peanut hummus, mac and cheese, pork rinds and a barbecue pulled pork sandwich on Texas toast, It's served on its own wooden cutting board next to a metal cup of fries seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs.

"Initially, we didn't have a side of fries on the menu," Price said. "But every time a server passed a table with them, someone would smell the fries and say, 'I want some of those.'" The menus change often, based on seasonal selections and local availability of ingredients, Price said, proudly emphasizing the fact that Firefly prepares everything fresh and as such has only a tiny freezer in the kitchen used mainly for ice cream and other desserts.

"We do everything in-house," he said, explaining that he butchers his own meat, cutting down whole pigs and chickens and using almost every part for entrees, stocks and soups.

"Every time a knife touches a cut of meat, the price of the final entree goes up," he said. "So by butchering everything myself, instead of, say, ordering a bunch of pre-cut tenderloins, I can keep all my entree prices below $30."

Entrees change constantly, but often include a crawfish boil, gumbo, hogfish and grits, flat iron steak, fried chicken with collard greens or shtimp and grits.

"Customers have been coming in for brunch and making dinner reservations for that night or the next night," said Coyne, adding that some diners are familiar with Southern cooking and come in for the tastes of their childhood. Others have never tasted grits and had no idea what kind of gravy was served atop biscuits.

"We're educating those people, and they're coming back again and again to try everything," she said while a server brought out a tray of drinks served in, what else? Mason jars.

The loosened top buttons, and satisfied smiles on every diner's face was proof that at Firefly Southern Kitchen, Price and Coyne made the right choice when it comes to "do what you know."

They clearly know southern cooking, and they've brought the south to the Southernmost City.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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