TAMPA — The creators of Carmel Cafe think they have enough makings of a chain to design their first restaurant built from the ground up.
They broke ground Tuesday at 3601 W Swann Ave. in Tampa for the $2 million project slated to open in mid August.
"It's a great neighborhood that we're very familiar with," said Chris Sullivan, a co-founder of casual dining giant Outback Steakhouse and a leader of the group of former Outback executives behind Carmel.
The location, which will become the fourth Carmel, is around the corner from the first Outback and one of its first Bonefish Grill seafood restaurants. With the third Carmel opening in a Sarasota strip shopping center next month, Sullivan figured the concept was mature enough for its first stand-alone prototype.
The clean international style design by Tampa architect Albert Alfonso is supposed to evoke a contemporary sense of communal order with flashes inside of more comforting Italian casual elegance set by stone floors and granite countertops. But it also represents some changed thinking from Sullivan, one of the guiding lights of suburban casual dining, in catering to the more techno-frugal 21st century.
With 150 seats, it's 50 to 100 seats smaller than the standard casual dining chain of a decade ago. The entry is in back so passing motorists won't steer away at the sight of a line spilling out the door onto the patio. There's no full bar because research says women prefer a wine bar.
Indeed, women have been outnumbering men 3-to-1 at the first two Carmel Cafes in Countryside and Carrollwood. First-year sales in each store are headed toward a healthy $2.5 million or more.
The lengthy Mediterranean-influenced menu can be ordered by the full plate or small portions to share in hopes that the average check will rise with the mix and match possibilities. Thirty of the 150 wines stocked can be ordered by the glass in choices of 3-, 6- or 9-ounce servings. Each table is equipped with an iPad that shows the menu in high resolution beauty photos, and can be used to summon servers and place and time orders. "This is about putting the guest in control of the experience," Sullivan said.
Unlike mostly dinner-only Outback, Carmel is open for lunch and dinner as well as brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Without wine, the average lunch ticket is $8 to $11, or $18 to $22 at dinner.
Carmel Cafe developed the iPad application with an Australian software firm and plans to sell the system under license to other restaurants. Next month Carmel starts marketing the iPad system at trade shows.
"We've got some tests at some large chains," said Sullivan, who would not name them.
Staff writer Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.