TAMPA — For anyone who frequents S Howard Avenue, chances are high they've spent money at one of James Lanza and Jeff Gigante's restaurants.
The two, along with chef Luis Flores and Lanza's sons Steven and Matt, own five restaurants on Tampa's popular dining and drinking strip, plus others in Tampa Palms and St. Petersburg.
Their dominance on Howard began with the opening of Ciccio & Tony's in 1996, followed by other locations in WestShore Plaza, Tampa Palms, Carrollwood and St. Petersburg. Then things got really interesting.
They opened Water, Daily Eats, the Lime and Lodge — entirely different concepts within walking distance on Howard.
The owners credit much of their success to the growth of Tampa's universities. College students from across the country came here with different tastes for food. They weren't tied to the chains or afraid to experiment. They wanted value but also healthy options.
In May, the group introduced its latest venture, Ciccio's California Cuisine, in an expanded space in St. Petersburg's Northeast Publix shopping center. It's a faster, more casual version of Ciccio & Tony's with bright decor and a menu of salads, wraps, bowls and stir fries, pizzas and quesadillas.
In an interview with the Times, Lanza and Gigante talked about the trend toward fast-casual, their penchant for one street and predictions for the Republican National Convention.
What's your most successful concept?
Lanza: The Lodge. We're all about restaurants, but the Lodge is a restaurant and a bar, and that bar portion of it brings in a little extra money. We don't get busy at Lodge until 8:30, quarter of nine, then we jam it until 3 o'clock in the morning. Whereas at Ciccio, we get busy at 5 or 6 and we die by 10:30 or 11. The later crowd spends much more money on the drinking, and with the drinks we make a little more money.
What has been the big appeal of Howard?
Lanza: We felt that this was the only area that our niche could excel in. Back when we started, Tampa was not really ready for our type of cuisine, and Howard was the only place where we felt we could try new things. If things worked on Howard, we could go other places. … This is our place to test things because the people are so diverse.
I can't remember seeing your restaurants in a Groupon or Living Social deal.
Gigante: We don't do that. We're already a value-oriented chain. People come and eat and say the value far exceeded the cost. That's what ties them to us. We attempted to do it. It brought in that discount hunter that wasn't going to be converted into our customers.
Lanza: Groupon brought in Groupon customers, not our customers. They didn't live near us. They weren't our demographic. We believe we have to build our clientele slowly. If you build it too quickly via advertising and specials, we demean our quality.
How have rising food costs affected your bottom line?
Lanza: We adjusted and worked with Sysco foods. The good thing is we use a lot of the same stuff in our restaurants but just prepare it differently. We don't buy a lot of unique items, and we buy stuff in bulk. That's where our chef comes in. He's amazing. He'll take a chicken and it'll be one flavor here and taste totally different somewhere else. You could never guess the same food is being served at all the restaurants.
Of course, we've got to talk about parking in Soho. Any solutions?
Gigante: Have extra if possible. (laughs) The bad thing about it is there's a lack of it. The good thing is that everyone expects that there's going to be parking issues, so it doesn't deter people from coming.
Lanza: And now, a lot of people aren't driving to get here or they park at one place and take off from there.
What are your expectations for the RNC?
Gigante: I think everyone is going to flow this way, especially with Bern's down the way. Although places are excited to be downtown, they are going to shut that place down like a war zone. There's going to be fences; it's going to be difficult. Howard is five minutes away with 30 restaurants. The good thing is the city already extended the hours, so we'll all be able to stay open late.
Lanza: Our biggest concern is if all these bigwigs are around, how are they going to deal with security? Are they going to shut down Howard? We may get hurt by that. We know there's going to be a lot of people. We just don't know how traffic flow will be.
Gigante: Just like when President Bush used to come to Bern's. We'd get all the Secret Service guys. But there were rocket launchers on roofs. It was really weird.
What are your future plans?
Lanza: If the opportunity arises on Howard, we'll look into it, and we're looking at a few places right now. In the same breath, we have three concepts we'd like to expand: Daily Eats, Lime and the new concept, Ciccio California Cuisine. If we open outside of Howard, we'll go with those. If we go on Howard, we'll create something new again.