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Zephyrhills attracts interest from Chili's

(ran PS, PW editions)

One big thing apparently deserves another.

The growth spurt along the city's northern boundary is luring new business interests, including what could be one of the city's only chain sit-down restaurants _ a Chili's Grill & Bar _ near the Wal-Mart Supercenter that opens next month, according to city planner Todd Vande Berg.

Chili's spokesman Tim Smith confirmed Friday that the company is considering Zephyrhills in a relatively new push into smaller markets. But no deal has been struck and no location can be confirmed, he said.

Vande Berg said representatives from the national chain featuring Southwestern-style food in a casual setting were in town earlier this month, grilling city employees on statistics and development rules. He said they appeared serious about an outparcel at the Wal-Mart location after city employees helped fill out a 30-page questionnaire.

"They haven't submitted a site plan yet, but they've talked to a couple of different people in City Hall," Vande Berg said.

Zephyrhills has gone unnoticed for years by larger chains, and most restaurants in town cater to a budget-minded crowd. The city does have a Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q restaurant, but with that exception, national chains other than fast food outlets have ignored the city. The nearest Applebee's opened last year in Wesley Chapel.

About 18 months ago Chili's experimented with building smaller restaurants in smaller markets, Smith said, and it worked. The national branding brings in hometown crowds just as well as the bigger restaurants attract diners in bigger markets.

"In some of those smaller markets, a few years ago we might have said, "No, thanks, it doesn't fit with what we're doing,' " Smith said.

Chili's has about 80 restaurants in Florida, third most of any of the 49 states where Chili's is located. The only state without a Chili's is Montana.

Vande Berg said he is getting almost daily calls from developers. Many are agents who don't identify their clients, but Vande Berg said he has had discussions about Blockbuster adding another location, other restaurant chains and two motels in addition to a 72-room Quality Inn & Suites under construction along U.S. 301.

Vande Berg said some attention appears linked to a May U.S. Census report that identifies greater Zephyrhills as one of the nation's 76 newest urbanized areas, as opposed to the rural tag it had lived with for years.

"People read that in the paper, they notice that," Vande Berg said. "They've always told us, "the demographics aren't there yet.' Well, I guess they're here now."

Vande Berg said from a planning perspective, what's happening near the new Wal-Mart is an acceptable way of clustering commercial development. The danger, he said, is that without cooperation among Zephyrhills, Dade City and Pasco County officials, all of U.S. 301 could end up with strip development like U.S. 19 on the west side of the county.

According to the company, Chili's Grill & Bar is the flagship of Brinker International, a publicly traded company based in Dallas. Chili's is in 775 locations. Brinker, with 90,000 employees, is also the parent company of Romano's Macaroni Grill and several other restaurants.

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