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Outback's Bonefish Grill goes fishing outside Florida

Last year, Outback Steakhouse Inc. gambled that its newly acquired Bonefish Grill concept would fly as well in Tampa as it did in St. Petersburg.

Now it's testing the boundaries again, and the new frontier is about 1,000 miles farther north.

On July 15, Outback opened a Bonefish Grill in Centreville, Va., the chain's eighth site and its first outside west central Florida. Business has been brisk so far at the restaurant, which is a 30- to 90-minute drive from downtown Washington, D.C., depending on traffic.

"It's exceeding our expectations," Outback chief financial officer Bob Merritt said Friday during a conference call with Wall Street analysts.

"We've been very happy so far," said B.J. Stone, Outback's 50-50 joint venture partner at the new location.

Bonefish is on a fast track for growth, with eight to 10 more locations scheduled for completion by year-end, including two outside Florida. Each will cost $1.5-million to $1.8-million to build.

For joint venture partners, Outback is giving preference to familiar faces such as Stone, who partnered in as many as 28 Baltimore-Washington area Outback Steakhouse locations before giving it all up several years ago to open his own restaurant, Doc Harry's.

Stone said the restaurant's chief local competition probably will come from two other upscale seafood chains, Legal Sea Foods and McCormick & Schmicks. Prices are comparable to those charged in the Tampa Bay area, though several menu items are priced higher.

Besides the new location, Bonefish has two restaurants each in Clearwater and Tampa, one each in Sarasota and Orlando, and its original site in St. Petersburg, at 5104 Fourth St. N.

In other company news, Outback said it raised prices at its flagship chain by about 1.8 percent during the quarter ended June 30. Any extra revenues it generates will help fund a more aggressive prime-time television advertising campaign for the latter part of 2002 and, the company hopes, boost same-store sales growth.

"We are being badly outspent by our competitors," Merritt said.

Outback's stock closed Friday at $29.59, up $1.17 per share.

_ Scott Barancik can be reached at baranciksptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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