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Big Macs give way to gourmet in menu test

Say McDonald's and what comes to mind?

Maybe a Big Mac, fries and a Coke?

Not grilled chicken panini sandwich, creme brulee cheesecake and cappuccino?

Visit the McDonald's at 3480 East Lake Road, just north of Tampa Road, and you will find something new for the hamburger chain. McDonald's calls it "bistro gourmet." Servers in green uniforms and visors now mix with chefs in poofy white hats. Gourmet fare like panini sandwiches fills trays next to value meals.

The East Lake McDonald's is one of about 10 in Florida, and the only one in Tampa Bay, trying out a new menu of upscale sandwiches, desserts and coffees. Owners say the response has been great.

"I'm stunned by the reaction," said Scott Brown, 35, who owns the East Lake McDonald's and two others in Largo with his wife, Andrea Brown, and his parents, Stu and Wendy Brown.

Last week, at a private celebration of the reopening with a new golf-clubhouse themed interior and gourmet food, champagne was flowing and trays with samples of the new menu items were circulating.

Beth Plotkin, McDonald's marketing manager for the Florida region, said bistro gourmet is a new but growing concept, with the majority of the outlets in Orlando. No other bistro gourmets are planned in the Tampa Bay area for now, she said, and the East Lake location will serve as a local test for the new menu line.

Plotkin looked out over the new interior, with renovations that closed the restaurant a total of about 17 days and cost the Browns about $450,000 for seating, decor, construction and new equipment.

Colors are subdued greens and golds. Chairs throughout have artful sculpted backs, and partial walls subdivide eating areas for a little intimacy. A counter with chairs surrounds a bright red Mercedes golf cart. Another diner-style counter adjoins the area where gourmet food is prepared, a good place to wait while sandwiches are pressed. A colorful mural covers one wall, depicting notable golfers like Tiger Woods and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

"I actually worked here when I was 16," Plotkin said. "It was my first job, so it's really neat to see it."

Two guests, Bill and Linda Lee of Ridgemoor, wore name tags identifying them as No. 1 customers. They have been patronizing the East Lake McDonald's for 13 years, going back to when Scott Brown was still in college, and they had only praise for the new menu.

"I love it," Bill Lee said.

"The food is excellent," Linda Lee said. "The chicken burrito was our favorite."

"And the cheesecake is to die for," Bill Lee said.

Four gourmet sandwiches are available for $5.50 to $5.70 each. Four include chicken, one Philly cheese steak and one veggie panini. For $2 more, add a medium fries and a medium drink. The gourmet sandwiches take slightly longer to prepare, so drive-through customers pull over for a couple of minutes and servers bring the meal out to the car.

Gourmet desserts, like two kinds of cheesecake, chocolate cake and carrot cake, go for $3.50. A single shot of espresso costs $1.20 and other espresso coffees or iced coffees cost $2.20 to $3.

A day later, Scott Brown was giving credit to his employees.

"I'm very proud of everyone here," he said. "They all take a lot of pride in what they do. Don't you, Sam?" he said to white-hatted Sammy Bui, 16.

"It's fun," Sammy said. "That's what we're here for."