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Dish restaurant's menu may include court appearance

The legal flap over claims that Dish restaurant founder John Schall ripped off another company's idea won't go away any time soon.

The two sides in the dispute met in a St. Petersburg law office March 12 to talk about a possible settlement. The meeting was over in 20 minutes _ hardly a good sign.

Schall, who owns Dish restaurants in Tampa's Centro Ybor and St. Petersburg's BayWalk developments, used to help run Round Grille Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company that operates three restaurants called Fire & Ice.

Round Grille's principals say Schall stole their concept, which involves customers collecting ingredients and taking them to cooks at a giant circular grill. Worse, they say Schall spent their money during trips to Florida as he scouted locations, only to leave to start Dish.

"We were hoping to resolve this quickly, but that's not going to happen, it looks like," said John Foley, a Boston lawyer who is working with the plaintiffs.

For his part, Schall says he will "vigorously" defend the case, which was filed in January in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

"This is just one of those things where someone wants to take advantage of your success," he said.


A founder of Coast Dental goes dot-com

When the Diasti brothers, founders of Coast Dental Services Inc. in Tampa, decided to put the brakes on aggressive expansion last year, at least one executive's career came to an end.

Tim Diasti is the brother of Adam and Terek Diasti, Coast's president and chief executive, respectively, and he was Coast's vice president of development. But he had to find a new job last fall. He didn't stray far from the dental industry. Tim Diasti started Inc. in Tampa, joining Crutcher Dental, a 100-year-old dental supply company in Kentucky, to distribute professional supplies online.

Diasti recently refused to discuss his venture, saying he was too busy trying to make the start-up successful. But he did say that, a private company, is not yet supplying Coast, of which he remains a major shareholder. The Diasti Family Trust, with Tim, Adam and Terek as beneficiaries, owns nearly 43 percent of Coast's shares.

Tim Diasti couldn't be blamed for trying to get Coast's account. The dental management company spent $6.3-million in the first nine months of 2000 on supplies and lab fees for its 124 offices.

Coast executives did not return phone calls asking for comment. The company, which had been promising a turnaround year, lost $475,000 in the nine months ended Sept. 30, compared with earnings of $2.1-million in the previous year. Financial results for the fourth quarter and year 2000 are expected to be released by the end of March.


Progress Energy directors head south for spring break

They're still calling the shots from North Carolina. But the top honchos at Progress Energy want customers served by Florida Power to know they really, really care about us down here.

Directors of the company, created when Carolina Power & Light bought the St. Petersburg utility in November, will hold their first meeting in Florida on Wednesday at he Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Chief executive William Cavanaugh will come down a day earlier to talk with Florida Power employees. Directors also will host a reception and dinner for about 75 local civic and business leaders to reassure them the new company will maintain or increase Florida Power's support for community causes.

They picked a nice time to visit, with spring and baseball spring training in full bloom, including the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Florida Power Park.

But for Cavanaugh at least, the trip is all business, spokesman Keith Poston said.

"I would suspect they'd rather be in St. Petersburg in March rather than August, but I don't think that really had a huge role in it," he said.

The board will be back for another quarterly meeting in September.


A new Element in home furnishing

One of the beefs that furniture manufacturers have about furniture retailers: They sell what's in the store rather than from a much bigger selection that can be special ordered.

That is the inspiration behind Home Elements, a retail chain owned by manufacturer Rowe Furniture.

Its 20 stores look more like mall lifestyle shops than furniture stores. They are about the size of a Pottery Barn. They look a bit like an Anthropologie. Mixed in with decor items are 20 to 25 furniture sets that can be custom ordered in more than 700 fabrics or eight leathers. There are no add-on charges for different fabrics. Customers can design their selection on a computer. Prices range from $800 to $3,000 for a sofa.

Rowe, which makes much of the special edition furniture sold at Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware, likes locating its Home Elements near those retailers. Home Elements gets 75 percent of its business from furniture while Pottery Barn and Restoration get most of their revenue selling home decorator items.

The chain, which has a store in Brandon TownCenter and recently opened ones in Old Hyde Park Village and in Citrus Plaza by the Citrus Park Town Center, had an impressive 25 percent sales gain in stores open more than a year in 2000.

Although the stores sell formal dining sets, marketing director Anna McCaffery said, "We're more about casual furniture that's used in rooms where people actually live."


Bush putting the buzz in venture capital's ear

Venture firms in Boston may be busy staunching losses at their portfolio companies. But Gov. Jeb Bush is hoping they've got some cash left over to invest in Florida start-ups.

Bush is making a trip to Boston on April 11 to have lunch with Massachusetts venture capital companies that might associate Florida more with Mickey Mouse than high tech.

The trip, which is being organized by Enterprise Florida, is similar to a December visit Bush held with New York City venture capitalists. Representatives from about 20 funds attended that meeting; about half of those had never taken a close look at Florida deals, said Charles Sloan, a senior director with Enterprise Florida.

"These people are constantly barraged with unsolicited business plans," Sloan said. "When they get one with a Florida postmark, hopefully they'll pay more attention to it."

Some bold Boston funds have ventured into Florida, investing in companies such as Qtera and Second Century Communications. But for start-up entrepreneurs seeking capital, the more bidders, the better.

Said Sloan, "These meetings are just a chance for the governor to create a buzz."