Partner in prime

By Amy Scherzer
Published May 25, 2007

Jason Fernandez soaks up the panorama outside Malio's Prime, the steakhouse opening in a few weeks in the cylindrical Rivergate Tower, a.k.a. the beer can building.

"It's a lifelong dream, " said Fernandez, scanning office towers, hotels, a convention center and sports forum to his left. To his right, beyond Kiley Gardens, he eyes the site of two proposed museums. Straight ahead, the University of Tampa minarets gleam across the Hillsborough River.

The 8, 000-square-foot restaurant will seat 200 in one-half of the first floor. Another 60 can dine outdoors on the canopied riverfront terrace. The wine list tops out at 700 bottles.

Fernandez hears the sizzle, smells success. He has hungered to partner with his hero, legendary restaurateur Malio Iavarone, since he was a teenager. Back then, Fernandez was the mischievous buddy of Iavarone's son, Derek.

Now, the trio is opening the first new waterfront restaurant that downtown Tampa has seen in decades.

Jason and Derek often stayed after school at Jesuit High, punished for some infraction. They used the time wisely, in retrospect, concocting cocktail recipes while wiping down cafeteria tables.

"We were 15 when we helped ourselves to my father's 1937 port - to go with our cheese toast, " Fernandez said.

The boys' parents, dentist Robert Fernandez and retired Plant High math teacher Vivian Fernandez, and Malio and Shirley Iavarone are also longtime friends who fed their interest in the business.

"Jason's a natural, " said Malio, "and Derek's done every job there is, busing tables, washing dishes, parking cars."

Now they beat the clock, visualizing potential diners moving into hundreds of downtown condos. The Riverwalk is in the works and Super Bowl comes to Tampa in 2009.

Fernandez expects the restaurant to open the week of June 18.

"We couldn't have timed it better, " said Fernandez, who also co-owns Bernini in Ybor City.

"We're going to rock 'em, " Malio said. "Downtown is where it's going to be happening. Maybe two or three years away, but we believe."

Malio, 63, is proud to lend his name and priceless expertise from 38 years at his legendary south Tampa restaurant. But he's leaving the decisions to "the boys, " he said.

"They call the shots. I just go in and smile."

Their personalities complement one another, he notes; they blend instead of compete.

"Derek's laid back. I'm intense, " Fernandez said. "I'm go, go, go, seven days a week. Orlando or Sarasota aren't far enough for a vacation because I'll come back to work."

Derek and Fernandez spent a year sampling more than 50 steakhouses from New York to San Francisco. America's Capital Partners, their landlord in the beer can building, equipped the multimillion-dollar restaurant and dream kitchen, from stainless steel walls to two 1, 800-degree broilers.

Locally, they consulted icon Chris Sullivan, who shared his Outback Steakhouse wisdom. Among his suggestions: big, comfy booths in the bar.

"He predicts lounge dining will be the next trend, now that there's no smoking, " Fernandez said. "Very metropolitan."

Fernandez, 37, grew up on Davis Islands and got his first taste of the business working at the Columbia Restaurant before graduating from the University of Tampa. He considers a neighbor, the late Adela Gonzmart, a second mother.

With a master's degree in hotel and restaurant management from Johnson & Wales University, he moved to New Orleans in 1995. There, he managed Commander's Palace, and owner Ella Brennan became his next kitchen mentor.

Next stop, Los Angeles. There he opened and managed four Outback Steakhouses and worked at various Wolfgang Puck locations.

"I learned organizational structure from Outback, marketing pizzazz and passion from Puck and how to be a gracious host at Commander's Palace."

He was overseeing food and beverage in 1997 at the Grand Bay on Key Biscayne, now the Ritz Carlton, when two guests from Tampa recognized him. They asked him to be general manager of their restaurant, Bernini. Six months later, the restaurant was profitable. Today, he owns 51 percent.

"I never thought I'd come back to Tampa, " said Fernandez. Family ties sealed the deal.

Two years later, he married Kristen Samuelson, a paralegal. By coincidence, the couple and their kids, Jason Jr., 3, and Ella Grace, 1, named for Ella Brennan live in Malio's first home in Wellswood.

Fernandez recently tried to get out of the restaurant business. He got a real estate license and began buying and selling homes. Those profits just helped him buy 41 percent of Malio's Prime. Derek also owns 41 percent and Malio owns 18 percent.

"It's in my blood, " he said.

Still, he knows full well whose apron tails he and his friend are riding.

"Malio's following brings them the first time, " Fernandez said.

"Every other time, it's up to me and Derek."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

Fast Facts:


Jason Fernandez

Drink: Johnnie Walker Black

Beef: Bone-in ribeye

Adviser: His dad, Robert, retired from dentistry and now can fill every job at Bernini.

Ambition: To franchise Malio's Prime in every building America's Capital Partners owns.