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STEAK! // HEARTY TREND KEEPS GRILLS SIZZLING

It's Friday night, and every table at the Lone Star Steakhouse is full. Across Tyrone Boulevard, customers line up for 35 minutes to get a table at the Outback Steakhouse.

"It's not even tourist season, and there are still long lines," said Bob Dove of Largo. "It's always like this here."

These steakhouses are among dozens in the Tampa Bay area teeming with customers _ proof that steak is a sizzling part of the restaurant business. But it could cool in the coming year as competition, fickle customers and rising prices could force some steakhouses to close.

It's a tough business. About 27 percent of all restaurants fail in the first year, and 60 percent fail within the first five years, according to researchers at Cornell University and Michigan State University.

Steak restaurants are cashing in on the fact that people eat beef, despite claims of shunning red meat in their diets. In 1960, the average person ate 63.3 pounds of beef a year. Last year the average had climbed to 67.5 pounds.

Chicken consumption has soared from a mere 33.7 pounds per person in 1965 to 71.3 pounds per person last year. But most people cook chicken at home. Steak seems to be the choice when dining out.

Experts say that such hearty appetites are fueling the $15-billion Florida restaurant business. Last year in Hillsborough, restaurant revenues exceeded $1-billion; in Pinellas, restaurants rang up $994-million. A lack of time to shop, plan and cook and a need to relax after work has caused a boom for restaurants.

"For the price, it's just easier to go out for dinner and order steak," said Deb Dove, who waited with her husband to get into the Outback. "And it probably will taste better, too."

In the early 1980s, there were chains like Ponderosa Steakhouse and Sizzler that kept the dinner tab under $10. But some consumers seemed to crave a more upscale steak option.

Then, in 1988, Australian-themed Outback Steakhouse Inc. opened its first restaurant on Henderson Avenue in Tampa. With its Fosters beer, huge servings of fried onions and an average menu price ranging from $9 to $18, Outback filled a need by serving moderately priced, high-quality steaks.

And it profited from the niche. Outback grew from 148 company-owned, franchised and joint-venture stores in 1993 to 320 last year. It had 1995 revenues of $663-million, more than double 1993's $322-million. And it's still growing. It now has 337 restaurants and is opening restaurants at a rate of about two a month.

In addition to Outback, there are other publicly traded companies, like Lone Star, a Wichita, Kan.-based chain of 175 restaurants, and Longhorn, an Atlanta-based chain of 74 restaurants.

Other competitors include national chains _ Roadhouse Grill Inc., Shula's Steak House, Black Angus Stockyard, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Sam Seltzer's Steak House, Steak and Ale Restaurant and Durango Steakhouse, to name a few.

And that doesn't include the dozens of independent restaurants serving steak. The granddaddy of them all, Bern's Steak House, started in Tampa in the 1950s serving steak for $2.50. Now it is a nationally known restaurant that packs in crowds. The wait can be an hour or more, even on weeknights, for those without a reservation.

Despite the crowds in the restaurants, some investors are spooked by the prospect of steakhouses having to raise prices.

One reason is that grain prices are up. That has led some investors to believe that the price of beef also will increase and be passed on to the consumers, who will then vote with their pocketbooks and eat elsewhere.

But others believe that the increased grain prices will cause farmers to slaughter cattle sooner, flood the market with beef and cause a decrease in beef prices that could enable restaurateurs to keep their menu prices stable.

The chains, like Outback, have negotiated prices with the suppliers that they've locked into until the middle of next year. So beef price fluctuation in the next few months might not matter to these companies.

If beef prices spike, independent restaurants that don't buy in bulk, long-term contracts will likely pass the cost on to the consumers. The chains probably will do the same if the prices are high throughout next year.

Add to the mix inflation in general and the cost of increased minimum-wage labor. These expenses also undoubtedly will be passed on to consumers.

"You are going to continue to see restaurants go out of business," said Mike Fineman, a Raymond James & Associates Inc. analyst who works in Tallahassee. "But that doesn't mean the steak market is at a saturation point. I think it is becoming more competitive, so that the weaker players will ultimately run into some financial ruin. But there is actually room for strong players."

If diners do tire of eating steak, they might seek out a new menu. That's why restaurateurs need to be flexible.

Take Belleair Bluffs' Eugen's, which for nine years was an upscale seafood restaurant. In 1994, its owners changed it to a casual-dining steakhouse called E&E Stakeout Grill, doubling its business in the process.

"Basically, what it really comes down to: You want to do the thing and please your ego, but ultimately you want to give the people what they want," said co-owner Erwin Scheuringer. "Right now, it is the steak wave. But you can't just ride the wave. In our case, we still do a lot of seafood, so if the tide turns, we should be well-established."

THERE'S THE BEEF

Here are three of the publicly traded, casual-dining restaurants serving food in the Tampa Bay area.

Longhorn Steaks Inc.

TICKER (EXCHANGE): LOHO (Nasdaq).

FRIDAY'S CLOSE: $16.50, up 25 cents

BASED: Atlanta.

FOUNDED: 1981; went public in 1982

AVG. CHECK: $16 for dinner; $9 for lunch.

OTHER: Operates 74 owned or joint-venture Longhorn restaurants in eight states, including one in Tampa. It expects to open eight new restaurants by the end of the year.

Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc.

TICKER (EXCHANGE): STAR (Nasdaq).

FRIDAY'S CLOSE: $30.12{, down 62{ cents

BASED: Wichita, Kan.

FOUNDED: 1989; went public in 1992

AVG. CHECK: $18.50 for dinner and $8.50 lunch at Lone Star; $37.50 for dinner at Sullivan's in Austin, Texas; and $60 at Del Frisco's in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.

OTHER: Operates 180 restaurants in 33 states under the names Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House and Sullivan's Steakhouse. (Sullivan's is named after John L. Sullivan, a turn-of-the-century bare-fisted boxer.) It has six restaurants in the Tampa Bay area and expects to open 25 more restaurants by the end of the year.

Outback Steakhouse Inc.

TICKER (EXCHANGE): OSSI (Nasdaq).

FRIDAY'S CLOSE: $26.75, down 87{ cents

BASED: Tampa.

FOUNDED: 1988; went public June 1991

AVG. CHECK: $16.25 for dinner. Only the Tampa location serves lunch.

OTHER: Owns or franchises 337 restaurants in 38 states, with 12 in the bay area. First international unit will open in Canada this year. It expects to open 33 restaurants this year.

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