Snow plows and winter sniffles elsewhere may literally be money in the bank for Tampa Bay area restaurateurs this year.
Last spring was a banner one for restaurants here, and 2014 is shaping up to be even better. Restaurateur Chris Ponte says he had his best Monday ever this week at Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. And other Tampa Bay area restaurateurs are boasting similar boom stories.
Harold Seltzer, who owns steak houses in St. Petersburg and Port Richey, says both stores experienced the best sales weeks ever during the week of Valentine's Day, up a staggering 29 percent in his Pinellas location over the same period last year. On the strength of all this good news, Seltzer is poised to sign a deal on a third location in Sarasota.
Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Tampa's Mise en Place, had a similar experience, saying she can't remember ever having such a busy Valentine's week.
So are these positive numbers reflective of a nationwide trend?
Nope. According to Harry Balzer, who researches food trends for the NPD Group, only one week thus far this year has posted national sales figures higher than the same week last year, and in fact the whole past decade has seen declining restaurant meal numbers.
For 2014, Balzer attributes the nation's soft restaurant numbers to something specific: brutal winter weather, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. That's keeping diners there indoors.
Last year's tourist numbers were up for Florida, and the restaurant industry in Florida is expected to post 4.5 percent sales growth in 2014, according to the National Restaurant Association. This while national numbers have drooped, going from a per-person yearly average of 195 meals in 2012 to 192 in 2013 (down from a peak of 215 in 2000).
"It's been a rough decade and not a fun time for the restaurant industry — period," says Balzer. "We're a country that wants to go out to eat, but we just can't afford to go out more often."
But that's not the story coming from veteran Tampa Bay area restaurateurs, including Frank Chivas, whose Baystar Restaurant Group owns Island Way Grill, Salt Rock Grill, Rumba and Marlin Darlin.
"This place is on fire. Tourism is definitely up incredibly in Pinellas County," Chivas says. On the strength of boosted tourist numbers, three new private dining rooms are under construction at Salt Rock Grill to capture some group business from Clearwater Beach hotels. But while he reports Marlin Darlin is up 14 percent so far this year, chilly temperatures and rain here have kept numbers flat at Island Way and Salt Rock, which each rely heavily on their 150-seat patios.
Ponte doesn't think increased numbers are strictly due to tourism.
"Florida is the new California in my opinion, and new businesses are coming here," he says. "Downtown St. Pete has done such a good job of being a great place for young people to be, that Pinellas County is becoming a better place not just for older people, but for younger people, too."
Dannette Lynch, regional director in the Tampa Bay area for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, agrees that the upturn goes beyond tourist numbers.
"Record numbers of visitors is a part of it," she says. "In a nutshell, it's a boom time, with new restaurants opening and existing restaurants expanding. There's been an economic boost behind the scenes with the restaurants."
She thinks destinations have begun seeing the importance of having robust and distinctive restaurant scenes to draw visitors, transplants and other businesses. And while she thinks this is happening all over Florida, she says it's especially the case in the Tampa Bay area.
"There's a new trend in food culture. People are venturing out into new areas and food types, attracted by great new concepts. Some of (consumer) education takes place in our high school culinary programs, on television and in the media. There's a new food culture."
Ferenc takes a holistic view, attributing some of this boom to visitors fleeing winter's grip, some to the savvy of state and local visitors' organizations and some to a rebounding economy. Still, she sees another, less quantifiable reason for the Tampa Bay area's restaurant numbers.
"We're going through one of those surges where people are doing cool things and there's energy. We're seeing the fruits of that."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.