A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with Sarah Marie Johnston who is also known as “The Handler”. Sarah is the marketing director at one of my favorite local brunch spots in town, MOXIE Kitchen + Cocktails. Sarah and her husband Tom Gray opened up this unique restaurant back in November 2013 in one of Jacksonville’s most competitive restaurant districts, the St. Johns Town Center. Tom is also the executive chef at MOXIE and Sarah told me that his love for food started at an early age as his grandfather owned a restaurant up in Maine.
I took a moment to look up the definition of moxie and the word is defined as, “force of character, determination, or nerve.” I asked Sarah if this definition was the source of her establishment’s name, but I came to find out that it had more of a personal connection to chef Tom Gray. As a kid, Tom would spend many of his childhood summers up in Maine with his grandparents. One of the highlights of his summers would be the opportunity to have his favorite soda called “Moxie”, which at the time was only regionally available in that area of the country. Since this drink brought such joy to Tom’s early life he wanted to personify this through his establishment and replicate that same joy for his customers in Jacksonville. Incase you were wondering, yes, you can sample the Moxie soda at MOXIE in Jacksonville.
Tom attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York as well as worked in the Big Apple’s busy culinary scene. Sarah and Tom met at the Culinary Institute of America’s west coast campus in Napa California. In 1999 they decided to move back to the East Coast as Tom is originally from Orange Park. MOXIE was built through the concept of delivering flavors that represented the true American coast to coast experience and with a strong earthly commitment to sustainability. In addition, the restaurant’s aesthetic appeal embodies one of the most modern and unique looks that I’ve seen on any building on Florida’s First Coast. The couple drafted the two story building idea and then partnered with ai3, an architecture firm based out of Atlanta to bring their brain child to life.
Much of MOXIE’s interior is made from reclaimed Maine Heritage Timber woods, and features crisp interior and exterior angles that flow throughout the two story building. The establishment also features two bars, an up stairs patio area, private dining sections, comfortable leather booths for intimate dining, and a relaxing varanda where guests can converse and enjoy Jacksonville on it’s milder days. Sarah told me that they wanted to create an environment that would feel like home to their guests, as in most homes the kitchen becomes focal point for socialization and conversation. They sought to bring that same concept to MOXIE’s design. Sarah opened the design of the kitchen so that guests can have an up front view and witness the culinary masters at work. As a part of MOXIE’s commitment to sustainability they incorporated a water filtration system that is used to minimize waste from water bottles in an attempt to stop plastic bottles and glass from ending up in landfills. In addition to that commitment they used sustainable building materials throughout with additional smart and eco-friendly design elements. MOXIE’s daily sourcing of ingredients comes from local and sustainable artisans and family-farms which are proudly listed on the MOXIE menu.
I wanted to find out what some of the restaurant’s top sellers were and what Sarah might recommend to a first-timer at MOXIE. The Handler broke it down for me. She said that the most popular food items on a consistent basis are the Chicken & Waffles, Seared Octopus, and Pimento Cheese Toast. She also added that MOXIE features special gluten free, vegan, vegetarian menus as well for the customers seeking those options. I also knew that MOXIE was locally famous for it’s craft cocktails so I wanted to dig and get some more info. Sarah said that Johnny Schaefer, MOXIE’s master behind the bar also known as “Stunt Man”, has several signature concoctions that are very popular. Some of these include the “Walk Don’t Run” which is similar to an old-fashion and the “Sure Thing”. MOXIE also offers a great selection of local crafts on tap which include Intuition, Green Room, Aardwolf, Cigar City, Bold City Brewery, Veterans United, and Engine 15. The bar also has a late night happy hour that starts at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Their regular happy hour is from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.
MOXIE contributes back to the First Coast community by partnering with several charities and non profits. Yoga for Change, St Vincent’s Healthcare, Feeding Northeast Florida, Children’s Home Society, March of Dimes, and Northeast Florida School of Special Education are a few of these examples. Sarah and Tom seek to take the “Full Circle Approach”, using green materials and reducing waste as the earth friendly approach to doing business. As a part of that approach they give special consideration for local organizations that fight hunger, support nutritional education programs, or focus on environmental sustainability. Their ultimate goals is to offer guests a great experience, but also deliver on their strong personal commitment in giving back to community by supporting small local business. They work with a lot of local artisans and farms such as Seminole Pride Beef, who provide the raw ingredients for the finished product at MOXIE.
MOXIE offers a quick lunch menu from 11:00 a.m. to 2:30p.m. Monday through Friday. In addition through partnership with local Lexus dealers, Lexus owners get to enjoy additional perks from MOXIE. For more info on this visit MOXIE online at www.moxiefl.com.
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Written and published for BUZZ Magazine, May 2016.