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Where the restaurant stars are born

Published Mar. 8, 1993|Updated Oct. 9, 2005

Tampa Bay is the birthplace of scheduled commercial aviation and the nation's losingest NFL franchise. But with little fanfare the region has quietly built a reputation as a fertile breeding ground for new restaurant chains.

The big-time 1980s incubators for fern bars and fast food restaurant chains _ Dallas; Houston; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta; and California _ need not worry yet that Tampa Bay is tugging at their titles.

But seven fast-growing, home-grown chains that started in the past decade are making a name for themselves beyond the Tampa Bay market. And at least four others are using Tampa Bay as an incubator to mold what they hope will be the next new players in the regional, and perhaps even the national, casual dining food chain market.

Tampa Bay's contribution to the culinary arts would win few raves from the fine dining crowd.

That's because the key to success in the chain restaurant world is feeding the masses. Chains are built on a foundation of short menus, consistent execution and good food that plays as well in Walla Walla as Washington, D.C.

Turning heads in the industry nationally are such fast-growing Tampa Bay chains as Hooters, which now has 100 bubba bars staffed by corps of cheerleader look-alike waitresses in tight running shorts; Checkers, which has deployed 230 of its little drive-up burger factories; and Outback Steakhouse, a collection of 89 stores where grilled beef and fried Bloomin' Onions are the house specialties.

Meanwhile, more modest-sized locally produced chains like Shells and Homestyle Buffet are reorganizing to get back on a growth track while newcomer Luigi B.G. Pizza & Pasta Factory gets ready to open its 16th store this spring and also new Beef O'Brady opens its 13th. Atlanta investors recently acquired Melons, a vintage 1986 Hooters copycat born in Clearwater, which they hope to remake into a more serious competitor.

If that's not enough, the owners of small start-ups are tinkering with prototypes they hope to reproduce cookie-cutter-style elsewhere. Hops Grille & Bar has opened four stores that combine a fresh-food-made-from-scratch menu with beer made on the premises. Apple South Inc. of Madison, Ga., owner of Applebee's and 10 Hardee's franchises, bought Tampa's Gianni's in hopes of creating a chain. And Outback recently purchased a Houston pasta palace called Carrabba's to mold into its next growth vehicle if a few stores built in Tampa Bay pan out.

A mirror of the future and growth potential

Tampa Bay's growing wealth of middle class suburbanites, tourists and migrants from all over the United States has helped make the place a good proving ground for today's casual dining experiments.

The region's wealth of retirees is a plus for some because once the baby boom begins retiring, the entire nation will mirror Florida's current ratio of retirees to younger people.

"If you can make it in Tampa Bay, you can make it anywhere," said Don Swirsky, owner of Luigi B.G.

"We really like the demographics of the area's continued population growth plus the cost of getting started isn't as high here as Atlanta, Houston or Dallas," said Chris Sullivan, chairman of Tampa-based Outback.

"Florida's a melting pot, a great cross-section of people unafraid to experiment with new restaurants, so you can buck trends and not follow the rules," said Ed Droste, a co-founder of Hooters, which started in Clearwater a decade ago.

And continued population growth of the region promises to keep the trend alive.

"New restaurant concepts always tend to come from growth areas," said Ron McDougall, chairman of Brinker International, Dallas-based owner of Chili's. "It's hard to start new chains in places where population growth is static. And if you want to cover the Sunbelt, the entry points are Florida, Texas and California. Tampa Bay, Miami and Orlando are the most logical places from which to build a base to spread across Florida."

If you still don't buy it, this month's edition of Restaurant Business, a New York-based trade magazine, last week proclaimed Tampa Bay one of the nation's top incubators of new restaurant ideas.

Some of the growth in restaurant start-ups is a national trend fed by a growing corps of chain store managers who learned operations and systems skills from the big chains. Now many are trying to turn their knowledge into entrepreneurial ventures with the ultimate payoff of making a fortune by taking their venture public after only a few years of success.

Reasonable prices and no dressing up

Some common threads run through all seven of the fastest growing young chains born in Tampa Bay that demonstrate how they kept growing in the frugal '90s. There's nothing fancy about any of them. All dish up good food at low to moderate prices. The settings are all dress-down Florida casual.

And most were created to capitalize on the inexpensive overhead of filling empty spaces left by restaurants that failed.

All had different reasons for starting in the Tampa Bay area.

Homestyle Buffet, for example, put its headquarters in Palm Harbor because that was the first signed deal it secured for its first restaurant of four pending in Florida. Luigi B.G. and Brandon-based Beef O'Brady were attempts to revive old eateries that had failed. And even Outback's creators, who earlier in their careers ran the Bennigan's chain, never envisioned Outback as more than a local chain.

Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham had just sold their 17-store Chili's franchise for Florida and Georgia. They flirted with offers to run Hooters. But instead they teamed with an old colleague, Tim Gannon, to create a steakhouse.

"We thought that with all our experience, people would be lined up to invest. But all we could get were my brother and Chris' father," said Basham, Outback president. "We never thought there would be more than four or five."

Six years later Outback is opening 50 to 60 stores a year. Its stock has been a Wall Street darling. And the company plans to have 198 stores open in three years.

Luigi B.G.'s Swirsky, a one-time research and development vice president at Lum's, needed something to keep the lights on at his franchised store in Largo when Lum's went out of business. He turned the place into a pizza parlor, but lost money.

"I tried the food myself and wondered why anybody would eat that stuff," he said. "It was all prepared dough and sauces. So I built a menu of 25 items myself _ all of them made fresh from scratch every day at each store."

And he cut prices so that an average dinner goes for less than $6. Now the average store churns a respectable $900,000 a year in sales and Golden Corral of Raleigh, N.C., picked up franchise rights beyond Florida.

Swirsky borrowed the Italian name from a defunct Miami restaurant.

Beef O'Brady is a similar story. Jim Mellody couldn't make a go of a Brandon sandwich shop. So he turned the place into an Irish pub _ using his mother's maiden name. He tried selling steak. It didn't work. Then came his own secret chicken wing sauce and enough satellite TV dishes to show five sports events at the same time.

Now Beef O'Brady is a low overhead "neighborhood" sports bar he has licensed and franchised into 10 stores.

Hamburgers and a roast beef sandwich may be the only beef left at Beef O'Brady. But the average store has $600,000 in annual sales. And on football weekends, people line up to get in.

"The secret is we're a place you can take the family," Mellody said. "We get 75 percent of our sales from food. We don't have pool tables. We like our stores next to Wal-Mart."

Start with a little luck, add a lot of marketing

To hear its founders tell it, the birth of Hooters was a case of "six idiots" with no restaurant experience stumbling into prosperity.

The grand opening in a converted ramshackle Clearwater biker bar was stalled a few hours until these restaurant rookies found out how to turn on the deep fat fryers.

But such tales of food service naivete belie the masterful _ and controversial _ marketing that put Hooters on the map.

Somewhere along the way, the founders stole a line from Hugh Hefner. They hired chatty, wholesome-looking college women as waitresses, then dressed them up in skin-tight T-shirts and running shorts.

They promoted the "Hooters Girls" in pinup calendars. They put them in parades. They made them stars at countless charitable and sports promotions and posted pictures of them posing with celebrities in stores. Finally they hired as their company spokeswoman Lynne Austin, a former Playboy playmate.

Now when Hooters moves into town, local feminists are appalled. There is often much publicity. The curious crowds show up.

The founders dealt franchising rights beyond Florida to an Atlanta-based company. They got a big break when the Rouse Co., developers of downtown festive marketplaces all over the country, made Hooters a fixture in many of the high profile centers. Hooters says its 100 stores will grow to 150 in 1993.

Hooters spawned several copycats with names like Knockers, Fraternity House and Melons. And a host of bar/restaurants made running shorts and T-shirts their standard waitress uniform.

Most fell by the wayside or remained small operations. Last November, however, Lou Franson, a former executive with Hooters Atlanta franchising operation, bought the three remaining Melons.

"We're going to move away from being a Hooters copycat and start expanding," said Franson. "I want the place to look more Key Westy."

Melons will be redecorated in watermelon colors _ red ceiling, green booths and white tables. Waitresses will trade in their tight shorts for more billowy tennis shorts. And more seafood will share the menu with old favorites such as Flamingo Wings and Buffalo Shrimp.

Experimenting with food, concept and atmosphere

Creating new casual restaurant chains from a single successful store is tricky business, as several creators are finding out. They are looking for something unique enough to stand out in the crowd even though the ultimate aim is to carpet the country with 400 to 500 stores.

Apple South hopes to figure out how to translate Gianni's antique bar, garlic oil dip and distinctive pasta dishes into a standard building that fits in front of suburban shopping centers.

"We were attracted by the food and atmosphere, a sort of mom and pop, eclectic New York hip feeling they've created," said Ben Waites, Apple South assistant financial planner. "We're going to take it slowly, but we think we can build 10 to 15 of them at first."

Outback's new acquisition _ Carrabba's _ should be opening its first Tampa Bay store in early 1994. In Largo, Roy Sanders and Wayne Cadero, restaurant veterans from Chicago and owners of two seafood restaurants on Florida's east coast, are experimenting at Largo Mall with Jalapenos, a concept they hope to make into a Mexican restaurant chain.

And Hops Grille & Bar _ the creation of a former owner of 21 Wendy's stores in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee and the owner of three sit-down restaurants around Louisville _ has begun signing up joint venture partners to spread its new invention across Florida and the Southeast in the next year.

Hops not only makes its own beer in each store. Employees grind their own beef and coffee and squeeze orange juice on site.

"We were drawn to start in Tampa Bay because it's got the most diverse population of any market in the Southeast," said David Mason, Hops co-owner. "We realized it was the perfect restaurant incubator when we started thinking about this concept five years ago."


Began: 1985.

Origins: After failing as a start-up in Mobile, Ala., the company was moved to Clearwater in 1989 by investors who perfected a revised menu and double-drive-through restaurant that borrows heavily from the original McDonald's.

Top execs: Herbert G. Brown and James Mattei.

Claim to fame: Burgers, fries and colas.

Distinctions: Stages burgermaking races between stores. The current record is more than 1,000 in an hour. Portable stores can be moved if location is a lemon.

Concept: Speedy volume operator in distinctive portable buildings designed to be so brash they need no signs to attract attention.

Size: 230 restaurants in 14 states and plans for 1,000 by end of 1995.


Began: 1983.

Origins: Opened by six businessmen in a dingy former biker bar in Clearwater.

Top execs: Lynn Stewart, majority owner, and partners Gil DiGiannantonio, Ed Droste, Dennis Johnson and Bill Ranieri. Franchise rights outside Florida now held by Atlanta company. Co-founder Ken Wimmer is no longer involved.

Claim to fame: Shapely waitresses in T-shirts and short shorts, bubba bar food topped by chicken wings and fries.

Concept: Good times in a noisy beach bar without the beach.

Distinctions: Revels in G-rated naughtiness that offends many feminists. Unusual promotions range from competitive NASCAR entry to $2-million in annual calendar sales. Sponsors Saturday afternoon schlock movies on TV in 16 cities. Recent features on WTOG-Ch. 44 in St. Petersburg included Hardbodies and Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women.

Size: 100 stores in 24 states ranging from Mall of America in Minnesota to Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix.


Began: 1988.

Origins: Started in Tampa by people who once ran Chili's in Florida and Georgia and Bennigan's nationally.

Top execs: Chris Sullivan, Robert Basham and Tim Gannon.

Claim to fame: Thick-cut beef and the Bloomin' Onion.

Distinctions: Average store manager earns close to six figures thanks to program that helps them buy a 10 percent ownership in their store. Not open for lunch.

Concept: Moderately priced food with an Australian theme.

Size: 92 restaurants in 14 states from Texas to Washington, D.C., opening new stores at 50- to 60-a-year clip.


Began: 1986.

Origins: Investors signed up former Buffets Inc. executive Kevin Bradley and former Kentucky Fried Chicken boss Barry Rowles to try the Buffets Inc. all-you-can-eat restaurant concept in the Southeast and Northeast. First store was in Palm Harbor.

Top exec: Ned Grace.

Concept: All the chow you can wolf down for $6.95.

Claim to fame: Unlimited slices of carved roast beef, turkey and ham.

Distinction: Took the old Duff's concept upscale with slick, modern decor.

Size: 32 stores from Buffalo, N.Y. to St. Petersburg, down from 37 as money-losing company tries to get back on track.


Began: 1985.

Origins: Opened in Tampa as a moderately priced seafood restaurant.

Top execs: Chip Roehl and Bill Hattaway.

Concept: Fresh seafood in bare-bones surroundings.

Claim to fame: Shrimp pasta and fried grouper.

Distinctions: Recycled old big-room restaurants. Recently brought in new president from Red Lobster to improve operations. Founder John Christian, creator of Brewmasters, recently left to start the Casual Gourmet in Carrollwood, but still owns 35 percent of Shells. Also created Cafe Geneva salad dressing line sold in 3,000 grocery stores.

Size: 22 stores in Florida and Georgia, down from 26 two years ago.


Began: 1982.

Origins: Former Lum's franchisee and vice president for research and development needed a new restaurant concept for his Largo store after Lum's went under.

Top execs: Don and Lynne Swirksy.

Concept: Good Italian food at bargain prices.

Claim to fame: All sauces and baked goods made on site from scratch. Stuffed deep-dish pizza that resembles a pot pie.

Distinctions: The chain recycles vacant restaurant buildings, so no two restaurants are alike.

Size: 13 stores in Florida, Mississippi and Georgia, deals pending for three more stores.


Began: 1986.

Origins: Needed a way to make a Brandon sandwich shop profitable. Eventually hit on neighborhood sports bar.

Top exec: Jim Melody.

Concept: Irish name, pub grub and family appeal.

Claim to fame: Chicken wings, three satellite TV dishes.

Distinctions: Growth pattern follows Paragon Cable boundaries. Named for steak fare that is no longer served and the maiden name of the owner's mother.

Size: 10 stores from Winter Haven to Bradenton and deals pending for three more.


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