As the new executive director for the Sarasota-Manatee Originals, a group of nearly 60 local and independently owned restaurants from North Anna Maria Island to South Venice, Sarah Firstenberger leads a dedicated team of few to put the region’s best culinary foot forward (as well as throw the third-largest food and wine festival in the area). SRQ takes a moment to get to know the current mind behind those Eat Like A Local stickers, and see who Firstenberger really is. “If you find out,” she says, “you have to tell me.”

JP Knaggs – owner of Bijou Café   When I first moved back to Sarasota, I worked in restaurants. Because of Jean-Pierre, I ended up meeting my fiancé, I gained my stepson and I learned about the Sarasota-Manatee Originals. He’s the kind of person who rallied for Downtown Sarasota. They built that restaurant when there was nothing there. People thought they were crazy. It ended up helping revitalize the community. He fought for The Ritz-Carlton to come to town. I learned it’s OK to stick with what you’re passionate about, even if the community is pushing back against you. 

Sailor Circus   I grew up here. My mom enrolled us in Sailor Circus, so I was there from a young age and for a good chunk of years. To this day, I can still ride a unicycle like a boss. Nobody believes me, but I’m a unicycle professional. I lived in Austin, Texas for a few years–Austin is really strange. There would more often than not be a unicycle hanging around, so my party trick was, “I’ll bet you my bar tab I can ride this unicycle around the parking lot.” And I hit it every time. They’d be like, “no way!”

Strong WomenBios  I love to read. It doesn’t matter if they’re a comedian or a clothing designer or somebody in marketing and business or government—it’s any woman who has really pushed and pushed to become the cream of the crop. It might sound ridiculous, but Tina Fey is huge [to me]. She overcame what she did with a sense of humor. To be able to persevere in your industry and keep a sense of humor while you do it is something that everybody should be able to have in their life. If you have that, you have a golden ticket.

Concert Freak     Concerts, concerts, concerts. It doesn’t matter what kind of music, the venue, the location—I don’t care if it’s a hole in the wall in an old record store or Soldier Field for a massive stadium show. Being in that music space, that’s my stress relief. We saw Coldplay in Soldier Field the summer before last and we took my stepson. He was eight years old at the time and it was his first big arena concert. It poured down rain—it never rains in Chicago in the summer. Soldier Field has no roof. I look down and there’s this tiny eight-year-old fist-pumping in the pouring rain and he’s losing his mind. It was the best moment of my life, infusing my love of live music into this little brain and this little body. 

Jannus Live   I was in the fifth grade when my parents took me to see The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Dance Hall Crashers at what is now Jannus Live. My mom made me stuff toilet paper in my ears and I had a teddy bear backpack. Now I try to make it to Jannus every other month. There was always a lot of ska and punk music—I went through that phase. I still drive up, but a lot of the time it’s for something a little more mellow. We saw Yonder Mountain String Band, which is more Americana and Folk. One day I’m at a Lil Wayne concert and the next I’m at Yonder Mountain String Band. It’s just live music; I love it. We saw this tiny South African band at this place in Tampa called The Congos. There’s a guy—huge, massive mountain of a dude with a big beard—and he plays the electrical accordion. 

Passerine   My parents are amazing local musicians who have a folk/Americana band called Passerine. It’s my mom, Carmela [Pedicini], my dad, Doug Conroy, my mom’s husband, David Brain, and our friend Sara Stovall. My mom has been playing music since I was a little kid. I would go to sleep with band rehearsals in the next room. Mattison’s Downtown used to be this place called The Depot and it was nothing but tables, a window and a wall. My mom was in a rock band that played there. She’d pull her VW bus up to the side, open the door and let my brother and I do homework while she was playing her gig. I can’t play a single note, but I’m massively appreciative of it. Now they travel the world–it’s pretty incredible.

Ordering Out   If I had to fend for myself in the kitchen all the time, I don’t know what would happen to me. You’d find me buried under a mountain of takeout containers. I’m blessed with a fiancé who’s phenomenal in the kitchen, so luckily I’ve not had to fine-tune those skills. I do make a pretty mean Bolognese sauce. That’s the one I can nail, and making grilled cheese at 2am.

New Book Smell   I love new book smell, and a good cover. Or sometimes even old bookstore book smell—it’s almost musty and mothy. I was that kid who got in trouble at the dinner table because I had my face in a book. It allows me to step outside myself, but my brain is working the entire time and solving problems. Some people think in the shower; I think while I read.

Foodie Fandom  I’m a massive foodie. I love food, I love restaurants, but I’m not particularly critical. I love the entire experience that is food and going out to dinner. We are fortunate enough that we get to experience other cultures. We can go out for Thai food, for Indian food and have an amazing French restaurant experience and never leave Sarasota. That’s my fandom. I bow down to what these people can create.

Film Escape   We didn’t have cable until I was 15 or 16, and we somehow got a hold of these VHS tapes that had been recorded off TV of The Princess Bride and Girls Just Want to Have Fun. So every time I ever stayed home sick, that’s what I did. I wish that I was engaging enough to go see really dark, serious, intense movies—so intense you can’t even read the subtitles—but I like the escapism of film. I try not to leave depressed. And I never watch a book adaptation.   

Positive Energy   No one’s ever happy 100% of the time, but sometimes you meet people who just have an amazing energy. And you want to know them. It’s almost a lightness to their personality. I surround myself with people who are kind, compassionate and engaging. If you let the knockdowns weigh on you, it creates
a darkness.