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Owner of TGI Fridays at TIA is moving on to new projects

George Tinsley Sr. at the bar inside the TGI Friday's at Tampa International Airport in Tampa in a photo taken in 2014. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times 

George Tinsley Sr. at the bar inside the TGI Friday's at Tampa International Airport in Tampa in a photo taken in 2014. EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published Jun. 16, 2015

TAMPA — George Tinsley Sr. remembers the day Tampa International Airport turned away his business the first time.

It was 1994. He wanted to open a KFC in one of the airport's airside terminals. He lost the bid.

"I stopped to have a beer in the main terminal and think about it all. I remember I watched the O.J. Simpson chase on TV," said Tinsley, who lives in Winter Haven. "That's when I saw the space where TGI Fridays is now."

Tinsley, an African-American businessman who spent two decades running KFC franchises, would become a prime concessionaire at the Tampa airport the next year when he partnered with HMSHost to build a TGI Fridays in the main terminal. The restaurant would go on to be one the most successful in the international chain and among the most profitable at the airport.

Twenty years later, Tinsley is preparing to move on. His company's bid to be a prime concessionaire in 2017, after the airport's $953 million renovations, was not selected.

Though he'll still have some stake in airport business — Tinsley is a subprime contractor in a Wendy's and P.F. Chang's through joint ventures — he said he's cutting his losses and moving on to new projects.

"I'm disappointed to no longer be a prime concessionaire, but business is business," he said. "I'm proud of the success we've had here."

When the TGI Fridays closes next year, Tinsley plans to reopen it in the West Shore area not far from the airport. A specific location hasn't been nailed down yet.

"A lot of the staff here have been working at this restaurant for 15 years or more," Tinsley said. "And this restaurant has been very successful. It should stay in Tampa."

Tinsley is working with partners to open businesses in other airports, too.

He's a partner in food and beverage concessions at the Louisville (Ky.) International Airport and the Miami International Airport through a joint venture with HMSHost. Tinsley is proposing restaurants in the Orlando International Airport with his partner Robert Earl, the founder of Planet Hollywood and Earl of Sandwich restaurant chains.

"I'm looking at this as a chance to move on to new opportunities," Tinsley said.

Business owners, advocacy groups and even airport aviation board member support wasn't enough to keep Tinsley's company on as a prime concessionaire at the Tampa airport. His restaurant concepts were ranked second for a set of airport spaces labeled "package 4" by an airport selection committee.

Tinsley questioned the airport's commitment to minority-owned and locally owned businesses in his protest.

"Anyone who looked at the information that was provided to the board would question the financial score," said Sam Rashid, an aviation authority board member who favored Tinsley's protest at the most recent aviation authority meeting. "I think the process was somewhat flawed. Even by a couple of points, Tinsley should have won the award."

Over the years, Tinsley helped bring Quiznos and Starbucks to Airside C in Tampa. He also became a minority partner in Cigar City Brewing and Shula's Bar & Grill at the airport. His businesses throughout the terminal employ nearly 400 people.

"He is a testament to success for small-business people," Rashid said. "He's been a great vendor at the airport."

Justine Griffin can be reached at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin