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TooJay's hopes Tampa Bay is hungry for a gourmet deli

It's not your normal New York-style deli.

For one thing, Tampa Bay's first TooJay's Gourmet Deli is out in the suburbs, in front of Countryside Mall. For another, its 178 seats are scattered around a spacious room done up in tasteful brass and tongue-and-groove wood paneling.

But the 300-item menu brims with most of the same fare that have made places like New York's Stage Door Deli famous: overstuffed corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, freshly baked bagels and a 20-item dessert menu aimed at the late-night crowd looking for an alternative to the bar scene.

"When people think of a New York deli, they think of a hole in the wall, yet we've got three restaurants here, all under one roof," said Hal McGeorge, president of Southeast Restaurant Management Inc. He aims to prove a sprawling deli/restaurant/bakery that hit it big in Palm Beach can be built into a prosperous family restaurant chain in the practical 1990s.

"We can feed a family of four for $25," McGeorge said. "There is nothing on our menu over $10. And for breakfast, families are looking for something beyond Denny's and Village Inn."

He is opening four TooJay's in Tampa Bay by the end of the year in some pretty visible spots. The Countryside Mall store, which opened over the weekend, will get company in two remodeled Sizzler Steak Houses in Tampa's West Shore area and St. Petersburg's Tyrone area by fall. And he is close to signing a lease in North Tampa.

Started 12 years ago in posh Palm Beach, TooJay's has spread quickly to seven Palm Beach County strip shopping centers.

Founders Marc Jay Katzenberg and Jay Brown named the place after the name they share. With annual sales hitting $20-million in 1992, they sold the Florida and Georgia development rights to McGeorge, 41, a former regional operations director for Wendy's International in Atlanta who once played center and kicked field goals for the Memphis State University football team. If TooJay's takes off in Tampa Bay, he is planning to open five more a year.

It won't be easy. New stand-alone restaurants come and go quickly, especially those searching for an elusive chain formula that plays as well in Peoria as it does in Palm Beach. TooJay's is a labor-intensive venture that needs a staff of 50 to operate from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights and midnight on weekends. Each of McGeorge's Tampa Bay TooJay's occupies real estate where other restaurants have failed. And he needs to churn $1.3-million in annual sales just to break even at his first store.

But he is confident his years developing operating systems for Wendy's have prepared him well. He spent three months working every floor job at TooJay's in Palm Beach to get ready. And he has hired TooJay's veteran Neal Chianese and Rich Langenbacher, a former general manager of the Castaway Restaurant and the Rusty Pelican, to help keep things running smoothly.

McGeorge thinks TooJay's pricing and signature items will pull in crowds.

His overstuffed sandwiches are piled high with 6 ounces of meat for $5.95, while most competitors want $5.25 for 2.5 ounces. His half-sandwich-and-a-cup-of-soup specials cost $3.99.

Everything served _ all the way down to the breakfast fruit cups _ is made from scratch daily. A full-line bakery provides sandwich makings, pastries, tantalizing smells and a line of sinful desserts. The big seller is "Killer Cake," a four-layer confection jammed with four types of chocolate and topped with whipped cream.

He also hopes to get up to 10 percent of TooJay's sales volume in takeout and catering business.

He is not even overly concerned that tackling a massive menu violates one of the basic rules of the today's casual dining business: Keep it short and simple.

"Hey, with its salad bar, even Wendy's has to keep track of 110 items," McGeorge said. "Besides, the beauty of this concept is you can add and subtract items pretty freely as people's tastes change."

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