Philippe Theodore was familiar with World of Beer. The pub was in the Westchase neighborhood where he lived, and he helped the owners with an annual golf tournament.
Jason Rappaport came upon World of Beer by happenstance. He was in the area for a business meeting and later stopped by the establishment.
Both Theodore and Rappaport thought having their own pub was a great idea. Each had independently inquired about the possibility of franchising a World of Beer, which has 500 beers from all over the world.
They saw opportunity in the down economy.
"Being friends, we were just talking one day and the idea came up," Rappaport, 31, said of Theodore, with whom he's been friends since third grade at Tampa's Berkeley Prep. "We were thinking in the same direction but had no idea. So we decided to make a run at it together."
World of Beer owners Matthew LaFon and Scott Zepp had no idea that "we knew each other and that Philippe and I were friends," Rappaport said.
In February 2008 and after several months of conversations, Theodore and Rappaport purchased the rights to three World of Beer pubs in Hillsborough. In July of that year, they secured the rights to three World of Beer pubs in Pinellas. In addition, they have first right of refusal for any other stores in those counties.
Their first pub opened at 5226 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg two weeks ago. Their second, in Tampa Palms, is due to open in a couple of weeks. A Carrollwood pub will open in the first quarter of 2010. There will be Brandon and Clearwater bars late next year. The third Pinellas spot hasn't been identified.
"I lived in Europe for five years, and they (World of Beer) took something I liked, the local pub/cafe feel, and included an American twist," said Theodore, 32, who graduated from a college in Paris. "The acoustic music and the huge selection of beer is that American twist."
In January 2007, LaFon, 33, and Zepp, 35, opened the first World of Beer at 9524 W Linebaugh Ave. in Westchase.
"People immediately liked the Westchase store and started inquiring about how they could be a part of it," LaFon said. "We went with the franchise model, and our main goal is to build the brand."
Rappaport and Theodore were the first to negotiate and obtain a World of Beer franchise license. Now, that fee is $45,000 a store. There is also a monthly 5 percent royalty fee. A team from the original store helps guide a franchisee.
The first franchise pub opened in Sarasota last month. Then came St. Petersburg. The Tampa Palms store and a Melbourne location will come online next month. Lake Mary and Coconut Creek pubs will open in the first quarter of 2010.
All the stores will have a similar look to the Westchase store with brick accents, black high-back bar stools and a dark and shiny bar. Two-door coolers will highlight the vast selection of brews.
In a tough economic climate, opening a new business can be risky. But according to a study by the Nielson Co., beer sales have remained strong during the economic downturn.
Sean Snaith, director of the Institute of Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida, said beer is a stable product compared with fine dining or other spending.
And Snaith said success can be accomplished even during a recession.
"The stronger and more robust the business plan, the more likely it is to survive a downtown," Snaith said. "Recessions, in a way, are Darwinian; it's the survival of the fittest. In good times, even a bad business plan can have some success. But in the bad times, that's where you start to separate the weak from the strong, and the weaker ones tend to fall by the wayside."
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Rappaport and Theodore see the economic climate as "opportunity." They said they would not have been able to get the quality locations they have during a hot economy.
"In addition, we have been able to get outstanding employees because people need jobs," said Rappaport, whose father owned all of Florida's Boston Markets and Einstein Bagels in the 1990s. "We have a world-class staff and many of them with college degrees. During a regular economy, I don't know if we would have the same staff."
To maintain an intimate feel, all the new stores will remain in the 2,500-square-foot range. There will be 40 taps, 10 more than at the Westchase location, and more than 500 beers.
Patrons will be able to purchase and take bottled beer home. The pubs will also serve wine.
Unlike the original Westchase store, Rappaport and Theodore's pubs will have a food menu created by Catering by Design in Tampa.
The two friends are pleased to see their Tampa Bay stores opening and said they will retain the same commitment to the community as the original store has.
"We will know our customers and our communities," Rappaport said. "We will connect with the community, because we believe that's how to make this concept work."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4174.