TAMPA — How to attract the cool kids? This is the mantra for so many restaurants these days: That huge generation of millennials eats differently, thinks differently and spends differently than their parents. So how do you reel them in and make them loyal customers? Even venues like Amalie Arena are grappling with this question.
The arena’s bread and butter is hockey, fans zipping in to the Firestick Grill before regular season games for a $77 buffet of grilled lobster tail and carving stations of prime rib and tomahawk ribeyes. Then there are the big-tickets concert like Billy Joel and Elton John, for which spendy prime rib still fits the bill. But what about the dozens of smaller, less expensive concerts the venue hosts over the course of the year? If you’re spending $40 for tickets to, say, J. Cole, dinner that approaches triple digits seems out of scale. And the Demi Lovato audience might just not be a carving-station audience.
The powers that be had an idea about how to attract this generation that prefers customizable, sharable, small-plate, international, interactive meals. How about giving them precisely that? On Saturday they debuted what they are calling Interact Bistro @ Firestick Grill (yes, with the @ sign). It’s a new menu focused on beer, wine and bites, with build-your-own rice bowls, salads, sushi and kabobs, Instagram-worthy injectable donuts, to-go gourmet popcorn in flavors like salted caramel and "Buffalo" and other enticements to appeal to a generation that is the white whale for nearly every retail Ishmael these days.
Make a reservation and hop into the Premium Entry line, take an elevator to the fourth floor to the renovated Firestick Grill, its most notable asset tall windows with a panoramic view of the increasingly interesting downtown Tampa skyline. The Interact Bistro dinner will set you back $49 per person and includes unlimited beer and wine. By comparison, the Concert Club in Lexus Lounge is $95 per person before taxes and fees.
In talking to restaurant manager Francie Baran on Saturday night, it’s clear the Amalie is aiming for a concept like Fresh Kitchen, one of several customizable, interactive concepts from Ciccio Restaurant Group. So how did Amalie do?
Not so well. What makes Ciccio concepts successful is that items on offer work synergistically and interchangeably: bases, toppings, accouterments and sauces adding up to a nearly fail-safe whole. Most of us are not good cooks, so why would we be intuitive assemblers? At Interact Bistro I saw bowls of these things next to each other: Cherry tomatoes, sour cream, grapes, guacamole, crushed pineapple, shredded cheddar. These do not add up to a dish, even, and maybe especially, when combined with the nearby sweet potato noodles. Above these things were bottles of assorted dressings and sauces: honey soy, thousand island, mango barbecue.
For a customizable buffet to be successful, diners need hints. Group Asian ingredients and sauces over here; have a Mexican assemblage (you know, the guac, cheddar, sour cream camp) in a different area, appropriate sauces, proteins and toppers nearby. A hot grill of skewers was interactive only in that diners would speak to the grilling staff and say, "I’d like that one, please." And the building blocks, such as precooked chicken breast cubes that were reheated with grill marks and devoid of any advertised teriyaki flavor, are not going to win millennial hearts.
The competition for diner dollars within walking distance of the Amalie has gotten much fiercer in the past two years. And millennials have proven that they are willing and able to spend a lot of their discretionary cash on meals out, especially those that speak to their own dietary restrictions and enthusiasms. The Amalie is in the ballpark — the wall of doughnuts, each with its own pipette of sauce like a lolling hypodermic needle, indeed Instagrammable — but it’s going to have to refine the details to tap into that particular zeitgeist.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.