As the host and co-creator of "The Kitchen Job," hailed by critics as New Zealand's answer to Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares," John Palino helped turn struggling restaurants into success stories.
Now the chef has his sights set on spicing up a section of South Norwalk on the edge of Wilson Cove with the opening of a versatile retail space that, if all goes as scheduled, will become the Disney World of indoor/outdoor urban markets.
SoNo Marketplace, located at 314 Wilson Ave., next to the future skating/ice hockey rink at 300 Wilson Ave., is scheduled to open on Aug. 1 and will comprise food merchants and craft vendors, culinary demonstrations and cooking classes with guest chefs, arts and crafts workshops, live music, occasional pop-up restaurants, seasonal holiday promotions, special events and family activities that may include paddle boats on the nearby waterway.
"I'd love to have a (resident) blacksmith and a potter," said Palino, an Italian-American restaurateur and one of the principals of the project, who divides his time between New Zealand and Norwalk.
Palino said SoNo Marketplace will have a country style atmosphere with a unifying motif throughout. The idea is to create a comfortable atmosphere where people can shop or not shop, Palino said. They can shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, artisan breads, cheeses, meats, seafood or for home wares and gifts, or just come by to hang out.
"You don't have to come shopping," Palino said. "Come and catch up with friends, experience the people, enjoy the music."
The administrative staff of SoNo Marketplace will produce special events and Palino mentioned a jazz festival as an example. Some events will be tied to various seasons or holidays.
"I want to keep it active," Palino said. "We have the versatility and we're building it in a way where we can continuously do different things and bring new people in, really make it a place where there is always something going on daytime and hopefully nighttime," he said.
Joseph Grasso, a local developer and owner of the property, had planned something entirely different for the space.
"The original vision was to have an indoor flea market," he said. "We changed the concept once I met with John. John showed me a lot of ideas he had done before. The (SoNo Marketplace) concept really fit much better into the area."
The idea came about after a mutual friend introduced Palino and Grasso via Skype last summer. Palino traveled to Norwalk for a visit to the site and really saw the possibilities.
"We've been working hard together on designing this for almost a year and now it's finally coming to fruition," Grasso said.
City officials liked the concept and neighbors are grateful, he said, because there is no market in their area.
"SoNo Marketplace is a unique idea for Norwalk, and one that has great merit," said Brian Griffin, vice president of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce. "The blend of country market with cosmopolitan sophistication should prove to be a winning formula, and be yet another reason for people to visit, shop and eat in Norwalk."
Grasso said SoNo Marketplace will bring in 70 to 80 vendors and will create jobs.
"In this tough economy, it's very difficult for a small vendor to lease a space in our surrounding areas," Grasso said. "This is the Gold Coast. This will be a much more affordable area for the entrepreneur that wants to get started or has an existing store and wants to showcase and sell their products."
Several vendors are already on board, although Palino was not prepared to reveal who has committed to the project. He did say, however, that "everyone who looked at it said `Where do I sign?' "
Palino's Flat White Coffee Company will be one of the vendors, and coffee beans will be roasted on site.
With an extensive background in the restaurant and hospitality industry, Palino said he also plans to host themed group meal events. As an example, he mentioned a Moroccan Tajine night or Italian feast, where patrons would pay one price for a meal from that particular country. They would sit family style, perhaps sharing a table with people they don't know.
"I used to do that at my restaurant in New Zealand and it was always packed," Palino said.
Grasso would like to see a trolley or bus take visitors through SoNo to the Marketplace and the Maritime Aquarium nearby.
"That's an idea we'd like to pitch to the mayor," he said. "We have Long Island Sound in our backyard, which is going to really be beautiful in the next two years. We really feel this is going to take off."
SoNo Marketplace is a big undertaking, but Palino said he is up for the challenge.
"My biggest task was when I was doing the TV show," he said. "I had to completely rebuild 10 restaurants in 20 weeks. I had a new restaurant to build and film every other week."
For information about SoNo Marketplace, visit www.sonomarketplace.com.