“Know Your Rights” is a semi-regular column featuring profiles of and conversations with local surfers whose love for the ocean fuels their passion, in turn inspiring a deeper connection to the Northeast Florida community and making the RIGHT coast the BEST coast on which to live.
Successful local businesses earn support not simply through a commitment to providing goods and services to their immediate communities. The best local businesses are often reflections of the communities they serve.
“We love our community. And we think through food and drink, we connect to each other,” Juan Pablo (JP) Salvat said of the mission for his café and vegetarian restaurant Southern Roots, which he founded with wife, Mariah, in 2014.
From the mixed-bag of simplicity that makes up the restaurant’s beachy, rustic interior décor to its owners’ commitment to serving quality, seasonally inspired dishes made with ingredients sourced from local farms and purveyors, Southern Roots reflects the eclectic interests and distinctive personalities of its creators and, more broadly, the city of Jacksonville itself. In less than 3 years, the Salvats have parlayed their collective vision, ingenuity and experience into a business that has become much more than just a successful restaurant. Indeed, Southern Roots is now a West Riverside staple and a destination adored by many residing outside of the city’s urban core.
“Our goals were pretty simple. Feed our family, friends and neighbors, teach and share our craft, develop relationships, and practice responsibility toward the environment,” JP said of the meteoric success of their modest business idea. “We’ve tried to make [Southern Roots] a place for everybody. And, honestly, it’s a dream come true.”
Southern Roots is an authentic family owned and operated establishment. As Mariah heads up the kitchen, lending years of experience and influences drawn from her upbringing in the Bay Area and Atlantic Beach to the preparation of the day’s vegetarian-inspired menu, JP holds down the counter, pulling shots of espresso bound for drinks like Café con Leche, greeting incoming customers and curating an idiosyncratic Spotify playlist in his unofficial role as house DJ.
A fixture in the local music scene since his days at the University of North Florida, providing Latin-percussion accompaniment to beach-based jam band Saltwater Grass and earnest singer-songwriter Nick Williams’ The Whetherman Band, these days when he’s not behind the counter at Southern Roots, the Miami-born JP plays percussion in the raucous Afro-Cuban Salsa band LPT. Even with a 2-year-old at home, a restaurant to run and consistent music gigs to play, JP still finds time to make the drive from town to the beach to play in the fickle waves of the Atlantic Ocean. As a surfer, musician and unabashed coffee zealot, JP’s passions are reflected in the restaurant’s atmosphere (and, with a longboard fin or two adorning SR’s walls, the décor as well).
We recently caught up with Southern Roots’ ‘spro-pulling Salvat, and asked him about his road to entrepreneurship and how saltwater fuels his passions.
How and when did you know that you wanted to start your own business?
My first job in college was at this place called The Fat Sandwich, which this guy from Miami started up in Tallahassee. He basically made this really cool space, with cool art and good music, and people dug it. I was like wait, “I too want to do this.” But I knew coffee was my thing. I lived overseas in Spain for a bit and, of course, fell in love with the cafe and coffee culture over there and just always took down mental notes.
Then 7 years ago, I met my wife, Mariah, and she was kicking ass with food, tabling at farmers markets. I learned so much from her. She introduced me to an entirely different style of food and it tasted so good. We eventually took a long road trip together and somewhere on the West Coast in the middle of a hike we got the idea of what we wanted to do when we grew up.
Prior to opening SR, you and Mariah had done some van-life-style traveling. You two also set up shop through the farmers market circuit around Northeast Florida. What did you learn from those experiences that you’ve carried over into your business?
Yeah we took six months off and drove my Vanagon slowly around the country, mainly up and down the West Coast. We were finding so many cafes, vegan shops, co-ops, and so many other kinds of places that really made us think about Jacksonville quite a bit. The more we explored, the more we knew we wanted to open up shop right here in Jax. Before, during and after that trip, Mariah did a lot of farmers markets, home-delivered meals and catered events, so I helped out in any way I could. I learned the art of selling stuff, and when you are given a product that you are passionate about, there’s nothing stopping you. So when then space at 1275 King St. opened up, I spoke with that landlord and that same week we were signing a lease without even knowing what exactly we were going to do. Improvisation is a beautiful thing.
You grew up in Miami. Your family is from Colombia. What about your upbringing influenced the aesthetics, atmosphere, or offerings at Southern Roots?
Yeah growing up in Miami and going to visit Colombia all my life was an amazing influence and inspiration for me. In a way, I think I really loved the chaos of it. How perfectly unorganized and organized it all was at the same time. Coffee drinks like Cafe con Leche and Cortaditos are essentials back home. In Colombia, especially in the cities, there are many restaurants that do not even have a menu — just the plate of the day at an affordable price.
All that, combined with Mariah having grown up in the Bay Area in California, and inspiration from our travels, really played a huge part in how we designed the space. Our budget was very, very small. So we had to get creative. Reuse and recycle was our motto, and it all came together with a little bit of elbow grease.
You’ve been a part of bands and musical projects in Jacksonville for years now — Saltwater Grass, Whetherman. How did you get into music?
As a kid, all I dreamed of was being in a rock and roll band and doing that whole thing. When I first moved to Jax, I made a good crew of friends and we’d always end up playing music when we got together. That eventually turned in to Saltwater Grass and we played all over the Beaches, and eventually all over the Southeast. It was an incredible experience playing out all the time, traveling, festivals and the friends that came with it. Later, I met Nick (Whetherman), and we got together and starting making music and, again, hit the road. Through those bands, I met a lot of really talented musicians and I just never stopped playing.
You, somewhat-recently, started the afro-cuban salsa outfit LPT. How’d this large conglomeration of talented musicians come together?
LPT is about the fonkete! Which basically translates to “one hell of a party,” with music and dance and all that. So every time we play, we make sure we are keeping the energy high and fun. LPT is a 10-piece band that started off with the original four getting together for a beer one day and always talking about salsa music. A lot of the guys had a lot of experience both listening and playing this music growing up, so it kind of made sense. The first few rehearsals sounded better than we had expected, so we kept recruiting other musicians — percussionists, horns, singers, etc. — until we got big enough to give it that real full sound it needs to sound good. We started playing in Riverside only and have since started playing at Fly’s Tie at the Beach regularly. We even got to play a festival at Suwannee, recently.
Where and when did you start surfing?
I started surfing in both Miami and in Colombia. I had cousins who were really into it, who showed me the ropes. Once I started driving, my friends and I would pile in and either hit up South Beach or head up the coast for a couple nights and camp along the way surfing anything, even shin-high waves. I moved to Jacksonville in 2005, and I’ve been surfing around here ever since.
You live in Riverside now. But you’ve lived at the beach in the past and your wife grew up there. Do you find it challenging, as a surfer, to live in town?
Yeah, definitely. The 30 to 45 minute drive, plus leaving the business, wife and son behind to catch some waves is usually a pretty tough thing to do. But if I have the opportunity, my most important rule is “get in the car.” Once you’ve got your board packed and the car on, it’s game time. The thing I miss most is the spontaneous surf — leaving the house, catching some surf and being back all within 45 minutes. That doesn’t exist when you live in town. Mariah is super supportive of my surfboarding habits, though, and there’s been many a time when I get home and she kicks me out and makes sure I go catch a few. I’m lucky to have her.
Between playing music, running Southern Roots, and, now, taking care of your young son, what kind of role does surfing play in your life? Is it something you find you need to do in order to find balance?
Surfing is now what it always has been for me — a time to have fun, disconnect from other stuff and get in touch with nature. Whether I’m out having a solo session or with my homies, I’m always so thankful to be out there catching waves. I still think it’s crazy that we are all able to take time and slide around on water at this point in our lives, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure I get out there any chance. Sometimes, all it takes is a couple waves and I feel like my whole world gets to be that much better for a few days or even weeks. I can’t wait for the day that I can take my 2-year-old son surfing. But for now, I’m pretty stoked that I can get that time for myself and not worry about him stealing my waves [laughs].