YBOR CITY — Hamburgers served with a side of outrageousness and a large dollop of kitsch soon will be on the menu at Centro Ybor.
The entertainment and retail complex will be home to Hamburger Mary's, a restaurant that trumpets its friendly and flamboyant atmosphere and calls itself "the only national franchise actively marketing itself to the gay community."
Hamburger Mary's should open within two to three months on the second floor of Centro Ybor in a space formerly occupied by Dish, which closed three years ago. It will have 7,200 square feet of indoor and outdoor seating and will feature a full bar.
The Ybor location will be the chain's ninth, and the only one in the Tampa Bay area. Others, such as those in Chicago, San Francisco and on Church Street in Orlando, are known for their eclectic décor and colorful atmosphere, as well as a diverse mix of customers that includes families and gay and straight couples, said Tony LaColla, who is both spokesman for the GaYbor District Coalition and president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association.
"You might have drag queens serving you or being hostesses — not necessarily, but it's the case in a lot of the restaurants," said LaColla, who has visited other locations during his travels. "They bring your bill to you in a red bejeweled high-heel shoe. It's definitely memorable."
Hamburger Mary's, he said, will help further the GaYbor coalition's goals by drawing a diverse crowd to the strip. "I think it will definitely add to our entertainment options," LaColla said.
Mike Higgins, one of four partners who purchased the franchise rights for Tampa, is quick to say the restaurant has many fans outside its gay and lesbian clientele, though it "was initially marketed to that, and there is still a big tie."
Hamburger Mary's will obviously be part of the coalition, a group of gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses in Ybor, Higgins said.
"But you want to open your doors and welcome everybody," he said. "That's why we think the Centro location is perfect."
David Harvey, senior vice president of M & J Wilkow, which owns Centro Ybor, said he is happy to bring in a restaurant with a built-in following.
"We felt that having them at Centro Ybor is going to further integrate us" with the gay community, he said. Gays and lesbians, he said, are a growing niche market for the complex.
The typical Hamburger Mary's menu includes a large selection of burgers (most about $10) served with mashed potatoes, fries or coleslaw; sandwiches, wraps and appetizers; and a small number of entrees over $15. The Sunday brunch is a popular feature.
Despite — or maybe even because of — the recession, Higgins said, this felt like the right time to bring the concept to Centro Ybor, where officials have been flexible with new tenants on rent.
And restaurants that are doing well these days "are more inexpensive … the ones where you can get a little bit better value," Higgins said. "People still want to go out."
Harvey said Hamburger Mary's fits with M & J Wilkow's plans to revitalize the retail side of Centro Ybor. "In Ybor you can always put clubs in," Harvey said. "We've tried to avoid that and go for more upscale restaurants that will enhance the traffic." He hopes that support from the area's gay community will help the franchise overcome the recession woes that have sunk other new businesses.
Some say Hamburger Mary's could rival the more upscale Streetcar Charlie's Bar and Grille as the most prominent restaurant in the GaYbor District. LaColla said people are worried that the two restaurants might fight each other for customers. "But I think they can work together," he said.
"Everybody I've talked to is really excited," LaColla added. "Most people in the gay and lesbian community who travel have been to a Hamburger Mary's."