WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
Greg Campbell was 12 and home – supposedly sick – from school, when he cooked on his own for the first time. Always ambitious, he chose popovers – light-as-air, eggy bread rolls, known for soft interiors and crisp golden crusts. He used all his mom’s flour, “destroyed the kitchen,” he said, and the popovers he made were an utter failure.
Chef Campbell, now 48, estimates that he’s since made thousands of popovers, as well as countless other dishes over a 35-year career in the restaurant business. “Feeding people is one of the most gratifying things you can do,” Campbell said. “It’s a great business to be in.”
Campbell is more than just a chef. He is Executive Chef and Director of Operations at Bradenton’s landmark waterfront restaurant Pier 22 – a place that’s much more than just a restaurant. It’s a company – and one that’s always growing.
For one, there’s the nearly 100-year-old Mediterranean Revival-style building, situated on the end of downtown Bradenton’s pier over the Manatee River. Inside the two-floor structure are formal dining areas, a lounge, a sushi bar, private and semi-private dining areas, and a second-floor ballroom that can accommodate up to 300 people.
The property also has seating (some of which is covered in the winter) on an expansive waterfront patio and terrace, where there’s an outdoor full bar and a 13-seat fire pit table. Hundreds of events are held at Pier 22 every year, from holiday parties and corporate meetings to baby showers and lavish weddings. The restaurant also holds events including a Mother’s Day dinner, an Easter brunch, and a New Year’s Eve party.
Pier 22 (the name comes from the number on its channel marker on the river) is open for lunch and dinner every day, plus for Sunday brunch. Patrons can dock at complimentary docks. “There’s nothing in downtown Bradenton that’s similar,” Campbell said, referring to the diversity of experiences that Pier 22 offers.
But there’s more. Campbell also heads up Pier 22 Special Events and Catering, an entity focusing on both off- and on-site catering and professional planning. The Pier 22 restaurant group also includes the Bealls Bistro by Pier 22, Corwin’s Ice Cream and Smoothies, and the Pier Bakery, which isn’t open to the public, but supplies freshly baked bread and pastries to all restaurants.
Finally, Grove Restaurant, Patio and Ballroom, offering regional American cuisine for lunch, dinner, and brunch in downtown Lakewood Ranch, opened in early December 2018.
Campbell, who splits his time mainly between Grove and Pier 22, estimates there are more than 300 employees total in the Pier 22 restaurant group. “My job is people,” he said. “I give people the opportunity to succeed, and the tools to do their jobs.”
An Impressive Culinary Career
Campbell got his start in the restaurant industry at age 18, when he worked as a saucier in a high-end Italian restaurant in his home town in Georgia. But he had been cooking since he was 11, learning mostly from his French grandmother. “I love what I do,” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”
Campbell has worked in several cities and states and in many different roles, including his first General Manager post when he was 28. “I made it my goal to learn everything about food and the service of food,” he said.
Campbell has worked for Pier 22 for 14 years. In that time, the property has had several facelifts.
“We’ve come a long way in 14 years,” Campbell said. “We try to cover a variety of experiences.”
The menu, which is Campbell’s creation, is large and features dishes from around the globe, with somewhat of a focus on seafood. Campbell calls the menu innovative but not trendy. It’s incredibly approachable, he said, and he constantly develops and changes the food and drink offerings.
However, there are certain popular offerings – the Wasabi Tuna and the Alligator Sandwich, for example – that he said he’ll never take off the menu. “Everyone who comes in will find something to enjoy,” Campbell said.
Pier 22 is notably accommodating to diners – many dishes are already, or can be made, gluten-free. There are vegan and vegetarian options as well. “We can do this because we are a completely scratch kitchen,” Campbell said. For Campbell himself, and for his employees, Pier 22 offers a wealth of opportunities to learn and grow. Because of the scope of the company, there are challenges to surmount and tasks to complete every day. One example: there are 400 total light switches to turn off at the end of the night, Campbell said. “The experiences I’ve gained being here are overwhelmingly difficult to find anywhere else,” he said.