TAMPA — With ubiquitous chains like Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands is the most muscular restaurant company in Tampa Bay.
It employs nearly 95,000 people in its 1,500 restaurants worldwide. It had $4.4 billion in revenue last year. It sponsors the Outback Bowl, one of Tampa Bay's signature sporting events.
Earlier this year, Bloomin' put in a bid to be a concessionaire at Tampa International Airport as part of a $953 million renovation there. Bloomin' has had a Carrabba's at the airport since 2008.
But airport staff rejected Bloomin's bid, as did the Hillsborough Aviation Authority on June 4 when it voted to accept Guy Harvey RumFish Grill, the Cafe by Mise en Place and Four Green Fields instead, as it sought to make the airport's restaurants feel more local. One board member, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, said Bloomin's success worked against it — "Sometimes when you get too big, you lose your local identity," he said.
But industry experts scoff at that notion and say the airport botched an opportunity to not only highlight a restaurant chain that has represented the Tampa Bay area as well as anyone, but to give travelers a familiar local restaurant brand to patronize.
"Frankly, if anyone is local to Tampa, it's Outback," said Malcolm Knapp, a restaurant economist in New York. "I think the airport authority just blew it. This decision is not the best for the traveling public."
Officials with Bloomin' Brands declined to comment for this story.
Tampa Bay has long had a reputation for being the home of chain restaurants. Hooter's, Beef 'O' Brady's and Checkers all have headquarters here. Bloomin' was among the first. It opened in Tampa in 1988 with just one Australian-themed steak house.
"It's a disadvantage to the airport, and disrespectful not to consider a brand whose roots come from that very community," said Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic, a restaurant research firm in Chicago. "Bloomin' Brands helps drive the local economy and provides local employment. The airport's decision seems shortsighted."
The Carrabba's in the airport's main terminal will be replaced by a P.F. Chang's, an Asian-themed international restaurant chain with no ties to Tampa Bay other than a few locations here. It is one of several national chains included in the mix of new airport restaurants including Wendy's, Hard Rock Cafe and Chick-fil-A.
"We had a committee in place to evaluate the bid proposals and choose which ones would be best," said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink. "There were lots of great concepts proposed that didn't get picked."
Bloomin' had hoped to add an Outback Steakhouse and a Bonefish Grill at the airport.
"The average restaurant-goer doesn't know that Bloomin' Brands is from Tampa, or even what Bloomin' Brands is," said Brian Connors of Connors Davis Hospitality, a global food and beverage consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale. "But they know what Outback is or what Carrabba's is. No one is winning on either side here. There will be local restaurants and there will be other chain restaurants. Why the airport didn't choose the chain that is from there, I don't know."
That brand recognition that Bloomin' has makes it a natural fit for an airport, Knapp said.
More than 40 percent of shoppers prefer to dine at national chains in airports, according to a 2013 survey by the Airports Council International, whereas 36 percent of travelers will try restaurants unique to that region.
"People who are traveling are going to gravitate toward brands they're comfortable with and what they know," Knapp said. "They don't want to take any chances when they know they're in a rush. That's why too many local options doesn't serve the total population of the airport well."
Contact Justine Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SunBizGriffin