Rafael J. Feliciano is on a mission to make Southwest Florida a world-class dining destination. The Florida Gulf Coast University graduate traveled extensively as a corporate bar trainer before starting Food Idea Group, a restaurant marketing and culinary events company, in 2016.
Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week, which he co-founded in Naples, has now expanded to Fort Myers and Cape Coral and runs May 31-June 13. The events have raised more than $20,000 for charities such as St. Matthew’s House, the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County and Humane Society Naples.
Where did your passion for food and sharing food start?
I grew up in New York and New Jersey; I’m half Puerto Rican and half Filipino. They’re two distinct cultures in which food is very important. My family, we’d eat meals together. Breakfast, lunch, dinner—we’d all sit at the table at the same time and talk. It didn’t matter how our day was or what was going on. We’d always try to make that happen.
How did Restaurant Week grow out of that passion?
I was fortunate enough to experience Restaurant Week up north. I’m a big sports fan, so Restaurant Week in these very well-established cities was like the World Series of food. We didn’t have that here in Southwest Florida. One of the things I’ve always said is: With void comes opportunity. I got very lucky because Restaurant Week is normally organized by a nonprofit. There are very few in the United States that are individually operated. The [Naples, Marco Island, Everglades] Convention and Visitors Bureau and the restaurants got on board. It started very slowly, then it just picked up steam and built to what it is now.
What is a typical day like for you during Restaurant Week?
I’ll be at the gym at 6:30 a.m. and get to the office around 8:30 a.m. We’ll go to a photoshoot for a restaurant at 11 a.m., and of course, that photoshoot ends with a tasting of their menu. We’ll do another photo shoot at 12:30 p.m., then that would result in a tasting. By 2 or 3 p.m., we’ll have our third shoot, and on some days we’ll have another shoot a little before dinner rush. I’ll get back to the office around 7 p.m. and work until midnight and then do it all again.
What’s your philosophy on balancing work and philanthropy?
I’ve always felt that if you have an opportunity and a skill set, you should take that chance to do good. This year, we’ve started a Sizzle SWFL FGCU Food & Beverage Scholarship. We want the kids that grew up in this area to stay. I think the locals and the kids here can really help elevate the food scene to something that’s renowned in the United States.