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How did Bonefish Grill go from Tampa Bay's exciting new restaurant to an afterthought?

TAMPA — The first time Diane Atherton went to a Bonefish Grill eight years ago, she couldn't wait to go back again.

She loved the dimly lit dining room and attentive servers in their crisp and clean, black and white uniforms. The food was unique and flavorful, especially the variety of sauces for fish and meat. The prices were on the high side, but reasonable enough.

Atherton still dines out at least two times a week, but she hasn't been to a Bonefish Grill in more than a year.

"It fell out of our loop," said Atherton, who lives in Seminole. "We just kind of forgot about it."

Like many chain restaurants, Bonefish Grill has struggled to keep up in this new golden era for independent restaurants. Chain establishments have more competition than ever before, especially in the Tampa Bay area as unique eateries continue to sprout in neighborhoods such as South Tampa and St. Petersburg and strengthen the "foodie" culture brewing here.

The gloom surrounding Bonefish is in stark contrast to when it opened its first location in St. Petersburg 16 years ago. Founders Chris Parker and Tim Curci created something new: fresh seafood paired with unique cocktails and good wine at a price point where there were no other players. Bonefish was an immediate hit and the pride of the Tampa Bay restaurant scene. The Bang Bang Shrimp became a local staple. The biggest customer complaint at the time was the long wait to get a table. Everyone, it seemed, dined at Bonefish and loved it.

"They wanted to do seafood differently. Not Red Lobster, but not Ocean Prime," said TJ Thielbar, a former managing partner at Bonefish who left two years ago to open Noble Crust in St. Petersburg. "That's what made it special."

Just a year after Bonefish opened, Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands acquired it. The number of restaurants quickly climbed from three to nearly 200 across more than 28 states. It was meant to be a growth vehicle for Bloomin', which also operates Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

But sales at Bonefish Grill started to take a dive during the second quarter of 2015 and have yet to rebound. Not only have chains become passe with a younger crowd, but menu tweaks and a shift in focus to cheaper prices last year also turned customers elsewhere.

In February, Bloomin' announced the once-unthinkable: It will shutter 14 Bonefish restaurants this year (though none in the Tampa Bay area).

Bloomin' Brands CEO Liz Smith told investors last month that she predicts sales will start to improve this year, so the pressure is on. The company has launched a marketing campaign, which includes television advertisements that feature kitchen staff and wood-fire grilled fish "in an effort to restore the brand to growth through the back half of 2016," Smith told investors. "It pivots away from the discount-driven messaging over the last two years."

After some experimentation with the menu, the chain went back to a simpler core menu last year.

Executives with Bloomin' Brands declined to comment for this article. It remains to be seen what else they plan to do to get Bonefish back on track.

"There have definitely been some changes" Thielbar said about how the restaurant has evolved since it launched, adding that he has noticed the biggest differences "more on the ambiance aspect."

When Bonefish opened in January 2000 in St. Petersburg, the founders coined a term to describe the restaurant that no one else in the industry was using at the time.

"Polished casual. Chris Parker came up with that," Thielbar said. It's now a term used to define a segment of the restaurant industry, one in which Bonefish remains the sole seafood contender. Others include Romano's Macaroni Grill or Grille 54, where checks average $25-$50 per person.

But the entire "polished casual" segment isn't doing so well, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a food research firm in Chicago.

"Full-service restaurants have been losing ground to fast casual with low growth," Tristano said. Fast casual restaurants are those such as Panera Bread or Chipot­le, where customers order at a counter, but still dine in the restaurant.

And seafood isn't easy, either. It saw the smallest growth compared to other dining categories like Italian, Mexican and steak, Technomic data shows.

"It's expensive and steakhouses have covered seafood more broadly with affluent consumers," Tristano said.

Amid all this, customers' preferences have changed as well.

"I would rather go to a beach restaurant for seafood or go to Ward's Seafood, take it home and cook it myself," said John Binfield of Largo.

Binfield has dined at Bonefish Grill a few times, but chose not to go back because of the cost and what he considered a limited menu.

Jeanette Benkert has dined at Bonefish in St. Petersburg since the original location opened on Fourth Street.

"It was one of our favorites. We would go for their soup and the Bang Bang Shrimp," she said. "However, the soup is no longer even edible."

Kenneth Stewart from Wesley Chapel said he and his family dined at Bonefish all the time when it first opened near his home.

"It was one of the first affordable but still higher-end dining options in Wesley Chapel," Stewart said. "We never had a bad experience there, but with the new options we have around us, we feel like it's worth the drive to eat somewhere local.

"There's this antichain establishment now. We used to eat at chains all the time. I'd take my family to Sonny's and Chili's on a regular basis. But I can't remember the last time I've been to a national restaurant like that," Stewart said. "We've come to expect more from the unique new options we have that are just better than a lot of the chains."

Ken and Nancy Sutherland were excited to try the Bonefish Grill that opened near their home in Brooksville a couple of years ago.

"We don't get a lot up here," said Ken Sutherland, who recently retired and enjoys eating out a lot more now. "I didn't think the selection of fish was all that interesting. I felt like we were being pushed out so a new table could sit. I think I'd rather drive to spend my money on a local seafood restaurant in Citrus County."

But for some, Bonefish's predictability is what brings them back.

Servy Fernandez, who travels a lot, said consistency is worth the price.

"I know what I'm going to get when I go to Bonefish," said Fernandez, who lives in Carrollwood. "Whether I bring a client there for drinks and apps or we eat a full meal, it's reasonably priced, but it still makes you feel like you're getting your value."

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin

How did Bonefish Grill go from Tampa Bay's exciting new restaurant to an afterthought? 05/08/16 [Last modified: Sunday, May 8, 2016 10:40pm]
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