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Red Elephant Cafe in South Tampa brings another Outback ex-pat into the local restaurant scene

Carl Sahlsten, onetime president of Carrabba’s Italian Grill, is opening the Red Elephant Cafe on S Dale Mabry Highway. Behind him is one of the artworks he has commissioned from local artists that contain a red elephant.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Carl Sahlsten, onetime president of Carrabba’s Italian Grill, is opening the Red Elephant Cafe on S Dale Mabry Highway. Behind him is one of the artworks he has commissioned from local artists that contain a red elephant.

The Red Elephant Cafe that opens in South Tampa next week is among the few pachyderm-related local events this year not related to the GOP convention.

It's yet another restaurant chain created by former executives from Outback Steakhouse.

"Once you get in the restaurant business, it stays in your blood; so opening new ones is what you do," said Carl Sahlsten, onetime senior vice president of real estate at Outback and president of its Carrabba's chain before becoming a partner in Tallahasse-based Red Elephant LLC in 2006.

It's one of a list of chains run locally by Outback ex-pats including LifeFit Foods, Lee Roy Selmon, PDQ, World of Beer and the two-store Carmel Cafe, which Outback co-founder Chris Sullivan plans to open down the street at the corner of Himes, Henderson and Swann in August.

Founded by former Tallahassee Outback store manager John Schrowang, the eight-store chain of sit-down, full-service Red Elephant Pizza and Grills is opening its first fast-casual version at 111 S Dale Mabry Highway on Monday. Unlike its sibling 175-seat Red Elephant Pizza that opened four years ago in Carrollwood, the South Tampa cafe needs half the staff and space and costs half as much to open. But the hope is it's only slightly shrunken 60-plus item menu can crank up sales to rival the full-service chain's $2-million-a-store average.

Featuring pub food like thin-crust pizza, burgers, salads and rice bowls; the cafe takes a page from the fast-growing quick-serve format of Chipotle, Panera Bread or Pei Wei Asian Diner. The average check is $8 to $11.

"People's lifestyles are more fast-paced today, so we see a market for higher quality food made fresh from scratch that's ready in five to seven minutes," said Sahlsten who figures 75 percent of orders will be eaten in the 80-seat cafe.

Named after one of the founding partners wife's cherished childhood plush toys, the Red Elephant ("We Never Forget") was picked as a symbol of security, comfort and whimsy.

That's carried out in the decor. The company commissioned a half-dozen local artists to each do their take on red elephants. One mimics Edward Hopper's famous Nighthawks painting of an all-night diner only with a Red Elephant serving James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe. Periodically, the art will be auctioned for charity and refreshed with new works.

And, yes, the chain's signature cinnamon and powered sugar Elephant Ear pastry will sell for $2.99 each in the cafe.

Rio de Macy's More than 100 colorful and unusual imports from Brazil are featured in the new "O Mercado" departments in select Macy's stores through the summer including Brandon, Citrus Park, Countryside, Tyrone Square and WestShore Plaza. Gifts range from arts and crafts to unusual fabric prints and Brazilets ribbon bracelets said to grant wishes when three knots tied in them unravel.

Organic Dessert Publix Super Markets this summer launches its first-ever line of organic ice cream priced at $4.99 a half-gallon. Labeled Greenwise, Publix's wholistic foods store brand, it's made from organic milk, cream, vanilla and cane sugar and comes in the best-selling flavors: vanilla and chocolate.

$98 Yogawear vs. $500 iPads It's old news the Apple Store led all chains with sales productivity of $5,626 a square foot in 2011. That's 17 times the mall store average of $330, and up 70 percent from 2010, according to the analytics firm Asymco. Less known: the second-fastest growing sales-productivity ratio was at Lululemon Athletica, the Canadian yogawear chain that recently opened its first area store in Old Hyde Park Village in Tampa. Its 45 percent annual growth came in at $1,800 a square foot, good enough for fourth overall behind only Apple, Tiffany and Coach.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

Red Elephant Cafe in South Tampa brings another Outback ex-pat into the local restaurant scene 04/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 1:58pm]
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