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Outback ladles another cuisine on its plate

The Tampa dining giant started with Australian-themed restaurants and now plans to add Chinese, working with the founder of P.F. Chang's.

By SCOTT BARANCIK
Published September 20, 2003

TAMPA - Watch out, P.F. Chang's. Outback Steakhouse is venturing into Chinese cuisine.

Outback of Tampa, a casual-dining giant whose chains include Carrabba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill, is teaming up with the founder of P.F. Chang's China Bistro to start Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen.

General counsel Joe Kadow confirmed the plan Friday, saying Outback was close to reaching an agreement with restaurateur Paul Fleming to create a 50-50 joint venture. He predicted Paul Lee's would open its first locations in 2004 and said it would be a less pricey alternative to P.F. Chang's, which is based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Fleming and Outback are already partners in Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, an upscale, 20-store chain with locations in Tampa and Winter Park. According to the Arizona Republic, Fleming's noncompete agreement with P.F. Chang's expired earlier this year.

With 95 full- or limited-service restaurants in operation as of Dec. 31, P.F. Chang's is the country's largest Asian-themed casual-dining chain. Compared to sector leaders like Olive Garden or Outback's flagship steakhouse brand, which have hundreds of restaurants apiece, that may seem small.

But restaurant analysts consider the Asian food sector one of the most chain-proof. There's tremendous local competition from Mom-and-Pop restaurants, achieving consistency throughout a chain is difficult and it's hard to find chefs able and willing to work the woks, super-hot pans used for stir-frying.

Kadow declined to speculate whether Paul Lee's would pursue meteoric growth like that of Bonefish or gradual expansion like Fleming's Prime Steakhouse. "I think we have to see," he said. But he added that the opportunities for an Asian restaurant chain appear wide open, with little competition in the less-than-upscale realm.

"None that I can see," he said.

- Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or 727 893-8751.

[Last modified September 20, 2003, 02:03:01]

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