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Checkers checks into fast-food fray

A made-to-order burger haven plopped down on U.S. 19 on Wednesday, andbusiness should be sizzling within two weeks.

On Wednesday, a crane lowered Checkers, the county's newest fast food restaurant, into place in front of Gulf Harbors Plaza at U.S. 19 and Floramar Terrace.

Since the first Checkers opened in 1986, eight have been built in the Tampa Bay area, and the Pasco restaurant will give the franchiser, Clearwater-based Checkers Drive-In Restaurants of North America Inc., a total of 32 restaurants in seven states.

That rapid growth has been helped by the identical modular design of each Checkers. The Pasco restaurant, which is a franchise operated by Palm Harbor businessman Del Brandt, was built at a plant in Largo and delivered to New Port Richey with most of its equipment already installed.

The restaurants are designed to attract attention with neon, chrome and checkerboard tile blended in a retro-'50s look, contrasting sharply with Checkers' modern, double drive-through concept.

Each restaurant offers walk-up windows and two drive-through windows, with seating limited to a small picnic area.

That design limits the restaurant's clientele in some ways, but also provides important advantages in costs and speed, according to Herb Brown, Checkers chairman of the board.

From land costs to staffing to taxes, the smaller restaurants can operate less expensively than standard fast-food restaurants, making start-ups cheaper and allowing plenty of leeway for competitive pricing on food.

Those savings show up in 99-cent quarter-pound burgers, which anchor a limited menu including hot dogs, milk shakes and seasoned french fries. The short menu also is important to the speed element of Checkers business.

"It's a double drive-through, so we can take orders from both sides. After the customer makes an order, nine times out of 10, we will deliver that order in 20 to 25 seconds," Brown said.

The first Checkers were built in Mobile, Ala., by James Mattei and Mark Reed. Brown was introduced to the concept in 1987. He quickly became a major investor, helping the originators move aggressively into franchising.

Brown is a longtime Tampa Bay businessman, with many land investments in Pasco County, including the shopping center at U.S. 19 and Main Street, where he used to operate Brown's Furniture store.