TAMPA — When Jennifer Fell started working at an insurance company on Boy Scout Boulevard seven years ago, she usually ate lunch at her building's cafe or brought food from home. Occasionally, she ventured to a restaurant along Dale Mabry Highway.
Now, she hits the circuit on Boy Scout and Westshore boulevards and at International Plaza, often seeing familiar faces at the next table.
"The quality of options has definitely improved,'' said Fell, a private risk adviser for Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners. "It's extremely convenient to have so many options within walking distance or a short drive away. It really maximizes your lunchtime.''
Professional office workers like Fell are a big reason higher-end restaurants have staked claims along Boy Scout, Tampa's evolving dining destination of sleek, big-box restaurants. Once a stronghold of Outback brands, the strip has added 700 restaurant seats since March and more are on the way. Too much competition? Owners say there are more than enough mouths for everyone.
Outback Steakhouse blazed the way in 2000 with Roy's, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Lee Roy Selmon's, which is no longer part of the company. Outback co-founder Bob Basham, who now co-owns Selmon's, said they liked being near Outback's corporate offices on West Shore Boulevard and International Plaza, which opened the next year.
"We took a little bit of a risk, but we were very confident about the market there,'' he said. "I don't know when the saturation point is, but it seems that for every new restaurant that goes up, there's a new apartment building or office building going up.''
Before 2000, the culinary action centered around places such as Bern's, Charley's, Ruth's Chris and Shula's steakhouses. Keith Sedita, who worked for Fleming's and is heading up Ulele Restaurant along Tampa's riverfront, said the Outback trio sparked interest in the area and expanded diners' minds, geographically.
"I remember a lot of my regulars were so proud to tell me that this was the one place they went to north of Kennedy (Boulevard),'' he said.
For those in the commercial real estate business, a Boy Scout address offers a finger-licking combination. It's across the street from a regional retail mall, within reach of 60,000 to 70,000 office workers and easily accessible to an affluent customer base within a 20-minute radius.
"It's a very good regional hub,'' said Jim Kovacs, managing director of retail services for Colliers International. "If you have people who live in different places and they want to meet at a good restaurant, everybody will be happy with at least one of the offerings there.''
Boy Scout quickly emerged as a top spot when Cooper's Hawk Winery and Restaurant searched Florida for its first location outside the Midwest. Among 100 potential sites statewide, founder and CEO Tim McEnery said the chain chose Boy Scout because of its proximity to shopping, office buildings and Tampa International Airport. He liked the traffic count — about 40,000 vehicles a day travel Boy Scout — and knew that other restaurants had done well there.
Restaurants open on Boy Scout fully aware of the competition, which isn't just to their left or right. It's also to the north at International Plaza's Capital Grille and Cheesecake Factory, and along Westshore Boulevard at Seasons 52.
McEnery said being one of the new kids on the block adds pressure, but not in a bad way. Executed well, all of the restaurants can succeed, he said.
"There's plenty of business to go around, but you definitely have to perform,'' he said. "You don't have the luxury of being mediocre.''
McEnery isn't complaining. Since Cooper's Hawk opened in March, he said lunch and dinner business has steadily grown. The 350-seat restaurant didn't have lines out the door like in other cities where the concept is widely known, but it has gradually built a following. Four months in, McEnery described the location as "performing wonderfully.''
Stephen Hickey, managing partner of the newly opened Eddie V's Prime Seafood, said Boy Scout attracts a different customer base than Hyde Park, where he used to work at Timpano Italian Chophouse. Thanks to business travelers, Mondays or Tuesdays can be just as busy as Fridays or Saturdays. Diners spend up to four hours per visit rather than two or three. Many customers are on expense accounts.
The 325-seat restaurant has intentionally left some tables open in order to focus on service and experience. Rather than drain business from neighboring places, including its sister restaurant Capital Grille, Eddie V's hopes to build its own niche, Hickey said. Unlike a lot of other places along the strip, it doesn't serve lunch.
"A new restaurant has the potential to create a new destination for people,'' he said. "It's a reminder for people that they haven't been to all these other places.''
Jorge Diaz, a manager at Ocean Prime, said business has steadily grown since the restaurant opened in tough economic times in 2008 and has continued to thrive amid the recent competition.
"We all help each other out,'' said the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, who used to work at Fleming's. "I remember when this area was the (Hall of Fame) golf course. It's been amazing to watch the whole thing grow. Tampa really has supported it.''
Boy Scout hasn't always had upscale appeal. From the late '40s to early '60s, the area housed landfills on what was then considered the outskirts of town. The largest, about 100 acres at Boy Scout and Lois Avenue, closed in 1962.
The street was named after the Boy Scouts of America Gulf Ridge Council, which built its headquarters there in the early 1960s. It eventually moved to Interstate 275 and Fletcher Avenue and the building was demolished.
The influx of big restaurants has helped paved the way for new residential projects and other types of commercial development. More than 1,500 apartments are permitted for the vicinity, and new, less expensive restaurants such as Lime Fresh Mexican Grill cater to residents and locals looking for a quick bite.
"We're starting to see more middle-cost restaurants that people will eat at three to four times a week,'' said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa's administrator of economic opportunity. "Everybody's flexing their might because they know it's a great market.''
Just look at Darden, he said. The Orlando-based restaurant company already has a strong presence in the area with Eddie V's, Capital Grille and Seasons 52 but plans to open an Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse near Westshore and Boy Scout boulevards.
Brayton Knotts said his McAlister's Deli, scheduled to open July 22 along Boy Scout, will fill a void for fast, less expensive meals. He expects up to 20 percent of his business will be takeout, much of it from office workers and people living in the apartments.
Adding 200 restaurant seats along Boy Scout shouldn't be a problem, he said. It just spices up the party.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.