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Outback founders celebrate the first location in South Tampa

TAMPA — Two weeks after Chris Sullivan opened the first Outback Steakhouse, he got a congratulatory call from another South Tampa restaurateur who'd done pretty well in the beef business. A fellow by the name of Bern Laxer.

"You're the only restaurant that's ever opened up that's taken a little bit of my business," the founder of Bern's Steak House told Sullivan. "People are talking about this filet you have. You've got to cook me dinner."

And so they did. The very next week, Laxer and his wife, Gert, came to the Outback Steakhouse on Henderson Boulevard for a pair of Victoria's Filets.

"That was a heck of a compliment," Sullivan said. "And at the end of the day, I don't think he really ever lost much business."

Twenty-five years later, neither has Outback.

On Tuesday, the chain's four founders — Sullivan, Bob Basham, Tim Gannon and Trudy Cooper — met at the original Outback at 3403 Henderson Blvd. to reflect on a quarter-century of Bloomin' Onions and Gold Coast 'Ritas, paying tribute to longtime employees and reminiscing about the days when Outback was just another new restaurant in a South Tampa strip mall.

It was a rare moment of nostalgia for the chain, which will turn 25 on Friday. Unlike Hooters, which proudly calls its Clearwater restaurant "The Original," Outback has long treated its Henderson location exactly like its 900-odd siblings around the world. Until Tuesday, there wasn't even a plaque commemorating its status as Outback Zero.

But over the course of Outback's odyssey of ownership — the chain went public in 1991, private in 2007 and public again in 2012 — the original has stood strong and stayed busy.

"Back then, South Tampa didn't have any restaurants that were like this, casual dining restaurants," said bartender Rich Menendez, who grew up about a mile from the Henderson Outback and is one of two remaining original employees. "You'd have to go to Chili's on Dale Mabry, up near the stadium, or Bennigan's."

How different are things now? Since 1988, Outback's empire has enveloped Carrabba's Italian Grill, Roy's Hawaiian Fusion, Bonefish Grill, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and, for a while, Lee Roy Selmon's.

Basham and Sullivan now have their own rapidly expanding local chains, PDQ and Carmel Cafe and Wine Bar. World of Beer, Red Elephant Cafe and Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza were all founded or expanded by former Outback executives.

Today, you can find all 10 of those restaurants within 3 miles of the original Outback.

Of course, the founders didn't see all this coming when they set up shop in a former bar in 1988.

"It was in very bad shape, and it smelled like alcohol," Cooper said. They laid down the cheapest flooring they could find — wood reclaimed from an old basketball court. And the decor? "I was collecting things out of antique stores — bullhorns and sheep shears, some dirty rugby equipment that a friend had," Cooper said. "The night or so before we opened, we sat here with a six-pack of beer and hung decor, literally screwing stuff to the wall."

Things started off so slowly, "we used to have to get our employees to park in the parking lot to make it look like it was busy," Basham said.

But it didn't take long for word to spread throughout Tampa.

Laxer wasn't the only big name to dine there. Stars ranging from Willie Nelson to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf popped in, too. The night before Super Bowl XXV in 1991, Menendez said, New York Giants running back Ottis Anderson came in and ordered two steaks. The next day, he was named the game's MVP.

For Menendez, the Henderson Outback has come to define not just his career but his life. He has met not one but two wives there. His 18-year-old son, Mack, was a busboy.

When Outback went public in 1991, the founders gave him 150 shares of stock. When he sold it, it was worth $100,000. "I bought a house with it," he said.

On Tuesday, Outback's founders presented Menendez with a bonus check for $2,500. They also gave him the option of a day off, but he chose to work anyway.

Back behind the bar, Menendez spotted a familiar face at a nearby table: Debbie Isaac, his former English teacher at Plant High School. She was there not for Outback's 25th anniversary, but to celebrate her 64th birthday with a sirloin and Clive Cussler's Night Probe! She's been coming to this Outback since it opened.

"I can't believe you're still here!" she said to Menendez.

"Twenty-five years," he said, smiling. "I know."

Outback founders celebrate the first location in South Tampa 03/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 11:40pm]

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