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Will Bloomin’ Brands be the next big company to leave the Tampa Bay area?

The company, parent to Outback Steakhouse, started here more than 30 years ago.

The Tampa Bay area has struggled over the years to hang on to some of its largest companies.

We’ve lured a few. But we’ve lost more. Outsiders buy them up and move the headquarters elsewhere. Even when most of the jobs stick around, the clout leaks away. The area loses a bit of its business mojo.

Now, Bloomin’ Brands says it’s open to a sale. That might be a good move for the restaurant company best known for Outback Steakhouse. It might help them better compete in a competitive industry. It might make shareholders happy.

But it feels like a gut punch. Our homegrown success story may leave like so many others.

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Bloomin’ isn’t our largest publicly traded company. It’s not the most profitable, either. But it’s arguably our best-known brand nationally, thanks to a stable of Australian-themed ads that tout grilled steaks and unlimited shrimp. Bloomin’ Onion anyone?

The first Outback Steakhouse opened in a former bar on Tampa’s Henderson Boulevard in 1988. The place had wood floors reclaimed from a basketball court. Employees parked in the parking lot to make the place look busy. They didn’t need to do that for long. The restaurant took off, and even caught the eye of Bern Laxer, the legendary creator of Bern’s Steak House about a mile away.

Bloomin’ Brands grew up here, rolling out concepts like Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, and Bonefish Grill. The company went public in 1991, private in 2007 and public again in 2012. Along the way, it helped redefine casual dining.

It has suffered in recent years as fast-casual and take-out restaurants eroded some of the market. But the company — including its franchise owners — still has more than 1,450 restaurants in 48 states and 20 countries.

Bloomin’s four founders and other company alums used their expertise to create or expand several other chains most of which got their start in the Tampa Bay area. The impressive list includes PDQ, Carmel Kitchen & Wine Bar, World of Beer, Red Elephant Cafe and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

On Swann, located on West Swann Avenue in south Tampa. [LEIVA, ANDRES | Tampa Bay Times]

Trudy Cooper, one of the original founders, partnered with well-known local chef Chris Ponte in On Swann. Former Outback exec David Osterweil created FitLife Foods, which now has 14 Florida locations, according to the company’s website.

How much of that innovation would have happened in the Tampa Bay area if Bloomin’ Brands had moved to another city years ago, taking most of the executives with it? That’s just one example of what we lose when big companies leave.

The Bloomin’ news comes a few weeks after a private equity firm reportedly offered to buy the area’s largest company, Tech Data, for $5 billion. And earlier this year, St. Louis-based Centene announced it was buying WellCare Health Plans, the third-largest company in the Tampa Bay area. The two sides should finalize the sale next year, removing another name from the roster of large companies headquartered in the area.

Bloomin’ Brands CEO Dave Deno said during a call with analysts on Wednesday that the company had made several moves over the past four years to improve its financial outlook. He emphasized that the company met earnings expectations in 13 of the past 14 quarters.

“Our portfolio is in a strong position,” but shareholders aren’t getting their money’s worth, he said. A sale could help address the disconnect.

So far, there are no announced suitors. But it will be bittersweet if a company swoops in and carries Bloomin’ Brands away.

Bio: Bloomin’ Brands

Outback Steakhouse founders Chris Sullivan, left, Trudy Cooper, Robert Basham and Tim Gannon pose for photos in 2012. (Times 2012)

Founded in 1988 by Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham, Tim Gannon and Trudy Cooper

Headquarters: Tampa

Executive chair: Elizabeth Smith

CEO: Dave Deno

Chains: Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, and Bonefish Grill.

Revenues: $4.13 billion (2018)

Employees: 94,000

Tampa Bay’s largest public companies

  1. Tech Data (Largo)
  2. Jabil Inc. (St. Petersburg)
  3. WellCare Health Plans (Tampa)
  4. Mosaic Co. (Tampa)
  5. Raymond James Financial (St. Petersburg)
  6. Bloomin’ Brands (Tampa)
  7. Cott Corp. (Tampa)
  8. Masonite International (Tampa)
  9. Sykes Enterprises (Tampa)
  10. Welbilt Inc. (New Port Richey)

* The rankings are by 2018 revenues. Eligible companies have their headquarters in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough or Hernando counties.