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Pier restaurant site attracts pitches from local group and Fort Myers-area chain

By Waveney Ann Moore
Doc Ford's, which operates restaurants on Sanibel Island, Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach, is proposing a 250-plus seat restaurant in the former Pelican Parking Lot on the pier approach. Rendering by Lotus Architecture.

ST. PETERSBURG ó As the pilings go in for the new pier, behind the scenes other developments are taking place in the buildup to its newly projected opening day in April 2019.

For now, two successful restaurant groups are vying for one coveted spot in the $76 million Pier District. The prime waterside site, in a former parking lot, is adjacent to 25 public boat slips and parking.

Doc Fordís Rum Bar & Grille, a popular Sanibel Island restaurant, with locations on Captiva Island and Fort Myers Beach, envisions St. Petersburg as its next location.

Competing for the site on the southern vista of the pier approach is local restaurateur Steve Westphal, owner of Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House.

Doc Fordís proposal is not surprising, given Mayor Rick Krisemanís scouting of the restaurant famed for its tie-in with bestselling author Randy Wayne White.

Westphal, however, was among those along Beach Drive who objected to the cityís plans for three restaurants in the Pier District. They said it would be detrimental to their businesses. The city has dropped one restaurant.

Westphal explained his change of heart this way: "Well, if you canít beat them, join them.

"With the knowledge and experience that we have, we can do the best job going forward and represent the area and the community and what it asked for," he said.

Doc Fordís has long been interested in coming to St. Petersburg, said Mark Marinello, a partner in the restaurant. (White is another partner and the restaurants are named after the main character in a number of his novels.)

Kriseman, who wants to make the Pier District a "world-class" destination, is apparently interested in adding a Doc Fordís.

"When the pier first started to get some traction, the mayorís office reached out to us," Marinello said. "As the ground-breaking got closer, the interaction increased. He actually came down and saw us with his team."

This week, Marinello spoke of being "pretty excited" to be part of the cityís vision for the new pier.

While the city has hired Colliers International to manage and operate the Pier District and handle leases, the mayor will make the decision about which restaurants get the potentially lucrative Pier District leases for the former parking lot and the pier head. The mayorís decisions, though, are subject to the approval of the City Council.

For now, the city has two serious proposals. Doc Fordís plans a 250-plus-seat, 10,000-square-foot restaurant, of which 4,000 square feet will be air-conditioned. The remainder will be covered, open-air seating. Each Doc Fordís employs an average of 104 people.

The menu at the St. Petersburg location will be similar to its other restaurants and will feature the traditional "Old Florida" decor, Marinello said.

Doc Fordís proposal includes a list of its charitable donations. It gives a dollar from certain drinks to the Golisano Childrenís Hospital of Southwest Florida. It says it will do the same for Johns Hopkins All Childrenís Hospital.

Westphalís proposal states that he and executive chef Tyson Grant strive "to find ways to give back and be of service."

Westphal, who also owns the Hangar Restaurant & Flight Lounge, Cafe Gala at the DalŪ Museum and the newly opened Annex at 400 Beach, sold the Pub Waterfront Restaurant on Indian Shores this year. The purpose of the sale was to be able to focus on his downtown restaurants and "the possible pier waterfront opportunities," Westphal said.

"We are the local guys,íí he said. "Iíve got four restaurants here, all different brands. We have over 300 employees. They are ready to deploy. The money that we make and earn, we put back into the community."

Westphal is proposing a restaurant that seats about 250 to 300. It will feature a contemporary decor and fit into the style of the new Pier District, he said. Wannemacher Jensen Architects, the St. Petersburg firm thatís part of the team designing the pier approach, is creating an environmentally friendly restaurant, Westphal said.

It will be different from the others he owns, he said.

"Itís definitely family-friendly and affordable. Iíve heard from the city that they donít want another Beach Drive restaurant out there," he said.

"Itís truly going to be an everyday personís restaurant, whether youíre roller blading, riding your bicycle, in a car or coming in your boat, itís going to be a place for you to come and enjoy, and youíre not going to have to break the bank to go and be part of it."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.