There are lots of hot and trendy restaurants in St. Petersburg, especially along Central Avenue the in Grand Central District just west of downtown. And creating many of the concepts is Bay Area company delivering award-winning food under the brand Urban Restaurants Group. Owner and founder Andy Salyards creates local, employee-owned, scratch food concepts that he says “focuses on developing their people to optimize the dining experience.” “Employee-owned” and “made from scratch” are not terms associated with most restaurants, but Urban Restaurant Group is changing the rules of the industry, and delighting local-conscious customers along with way.

There are three Urban Restaurants, Urban Brew and BBQ, URBAN Creamery and Urban Comfort Restaurant and Brewery, all on Central Avenue. The Brew and Barbecue outpost showcases 20 craft beers on tap and amazing food. I sampled a few dishes, and the brisket was tender and had great flavor from a dry rub. There's a different rub for each type of meat and all are made in-house, perfected over the years to ensure just the right ratio of spice to sugar to salt. Along with the 'cue comes three house-made sauces, spicy, tangy and sweet.

For the ribs they remove the underside membrane from their baby backs, so the meat simply falls from the bone and is easy to chew. Then they hit the backside with plenty of rub, so the seasoning reaches every morsel. The mac and cheese is made with a blend of smoked gouda, cheddar, and parmesan, and each serving comes in its own cast-iron skillet. It gets a final bake, and comes out of the oven with a nice crunchy golden crust and sear on the bottom. The crunch from the crust with the creaminess of the lush cheese sauce is sinfully good. Salyards told me they make this in 32-gallon batches, and if I lived around the corner, I'd ask that they make it in 33-gallon batches.

I wrote about Urban Southern Comfort and Brewery here, where the fried chicken sandwich is paired with crispy sweet potatoes. It arrives piping hot, with the chicken is super crispy and well-seasoned. It sits on a soft challah roll with house-made pickles, and a peppercorn dressing that’s also made (you guessed it) in-house. Once you add the crispy, salty sweet potato fries and a cold beer, you’ve got a recipe for an afternoon that could last for days

From the moment you step into any of these restaurants, you are greeted by a staff of friendly and genuine professionals, which make sense since all of them can be owners. The policy helps to retain staff and the focus of Urban's mission, which is to serve consistently great food at reasonable prices. The goal is to have the business entirely employee-owned by the year 2020. Because the staff is such an integral part of success, Andy looks for people with attitude over aptitude and team players, which benefits the customer experience since it's possible your server owns the joint!

Consistently great food makes a great restaurant, and Urban Restaurants Group adds an emphasis on the customer experience. They raising the standard for dining in the 727, and changing the rules of an industry which makes for happy employees and happy customers. And for more Places to Eat, Things to Do and special Events coming to Pinellas County, check out 727area and register for updates to your mobile device. It’s free!