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  1. Food

Joint venture aims to grow to 20 Fresh Kitchen locations in Florida

TAMPA — It sounds like a perfectly healthy fit. The Ciccio Restaurant Group (the Lodge, Green Lemon, Daily Eats, etc.) and Covelli Family Limited Partnership (Covelli Enterprises has nearly 300 Panera Bread locations) announced Monday they have formed a joint venture partnership for the growth and expansion of the Fresh Kitchen brand.

The partnership aims to have 20 locations in Florida in the next five years, with thoughts of regional and national expansion after that.

Fresh Kitchen (abbreviated FK with interesting pronunciations) opened its first location in South Tampa at the end of 2014, fine-tuning a formula for health-forward, customizable grab-and-go bowls that leaned heavily on "omega mix" (chia, pumpkin and hemp seed), roasted cauliflower and sauces fueled by cold-pressed juices. In short, a millennial's dream come true.

Ciccio partners Jeff Gigante, executive chef Luis Flores, and Steven, James and Matthew Lanza followed with a second location in Sarasota, a third on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg and a Boca Raton location opened in late March.

"We've been working on it for quite awhile," said Gigante. "I volunteer with (Covelli owner) Kevin Ricci and his wife, Kerry, at the Children's Cancer Center in Tampa, and we got to talking about Fresh Kitchen. We were able to put together a deal with a group we really believe in."

According to Gigante, this is not a franchise model, but a joint venture partnership so the group can "control the culture, the food and the product."

The Ciccio Restaurant Group will announce several more locations in the next couple of weeks, and Kevin Ricci will soon announce the location of his first store, in Orlando. Covelli Enterprises aims to open 10 locations in the next five years.

Gigante and partners have been at the vanguard of health trends since opening their first Ciccio and Tony's location — sometimes this has meant a low-carb "paleo" approach, other years it's been a focus on "superfoods" and an effort to wean diners from all things fry-o-lator. Meanwhile, Panera has refocused some of its efforts on "clean foods." The message for both companies is that fast-casual fare can be healthy.

Covelli Enterprises' specialty is multi-unit restaurants, Gigante says. "Their grandfather was the first McDonald's franchisee."

And from its fried chicken and doughnut concept (Better Byrd) to its upscale Mexican (Green Lemon), many Ciccio projects have read like prototypes that might be replicable. But the point-and-choose approach at Fresh Kitchen (select proteins, starches, veggies and a sauce to suit tastes and dietary issues) is the one that seems to resonate with how younger adults like to eat. And they are the magical demographic everyone is chasing.

Gigante sees the partnership and growth of Fresh Kitchen as an extension of what his group has been doing all along.

"I just think FK has been a culmination. We believe the timing is perfect for this type model. Stores have a smaller footprint, with less labor and a lot of focus on the freshness of the food. It's food how we like to eat it," he said.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.