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[Times photo: Patty Yablonski]

Corporate cuisine chains are sweeping into the area with an arsenal of cash and know-how. Does their attack doom independent restaurants or will it up the quality all around?

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 6, 2001


For months now, Tampa Bay area diners have been the target of new, highly advanced restaurants, with state of the art operations, sophisticated design, huge staffs and high-powered marketing, backed by inexhaustible resources.

They have landed in squadrons all around Tampa Bay in downtown St. Petersburg, in Ybor City and by the airport. They have changed the dining landscape forever.

I ask you to remain calm. This invasion is not over. More restaurants are landing each week, and our sensors indicate new waves to come. We must decide whether to make our peace with them or to fight. ...

The advance guard

The Attack of the $2-Million Monster might be bad science fiction, but it's not fiction for local restaurateurs, who have faced an unprecedented amount of new competition that has made a tough business infinitely tougher during the past year.

No one has yet blamed specific casualties on the competition, but on slow nights established local independents are afraid, very afraid. Even those who aren't afraid admit that dinner business is down while curious customers check out the competition.

The newcomers are legion: In less than a year seven new restaurants opened in BayWalk, seven more in Centro Ybor, four in Outback's stable, almost all big places backed by big chains or large restaurant groups, most of them from out of town. This week even they are old news as the buzz shifts to the newest of the new in two other areas.

In north Pinellas, farthest removed from the trend, high-powered modern restauranting has landed in Clearwater Harbor. Less than two weeks after its opening, people are lined up at the stunning Island Way Grill, where dinners of salmon in bamboo leaves come with sweeping views and a gallery of jewel-like art glass.

Tampa's Next Big Thing is the Samba Room, a chain from Friday's that has given sex appeal to familiar Latin dishes and Olde Hyde Park Village, in less than a month.

After that? By September, only a year after Centro Ybor opened, Channelside will fill out its restaurant line-up, and Tampa's west side (closer to Pinellas and Pasco) will become a bigger powerhouse.

The Palm will open a branch of the famous cartoon-covered New York steakhouse at WestShore Plaza; nearby will be Maggiano's Little Italy, a hit chain from Lettuce Entertain You, the Chicago developer that has invented 50 restaurants from R.J. Gruntz to Vong.

And International Plaza, WestShore's rival, will open with gourmet chocolatiers and bakers that match its designer fashions and a restaurant row from high-end Asian food to the Cheesecake Factory, home of jambalaya pastas and two-hour waits.

Then there are the smaller clusters that clog major arteries such as the crossroads of Tyrone and Park boulevards in St. Petersburg, which now has Outback, Carrabba's, Sam Seltzer's, Don Pablo, Hops, Lone Star and Crabby Bill's.

But it's the new corporate goliaths that have the biggest impact.

The big guys' strategy

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[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
The lamps are part of the upscale look at the BayWalk location of Dish, a restaurant featuring a grill and buffet bar, in St. Petersburg. Dish also has a location in Centro Ybor in Tampa's Ybor City.
The "wow" decor is the biggest shock of the new, with bold and seductive colors, open exhibition kitchens and outdoor seating. Sometimes, it's abstract lines of exotic woods and burnished metal, or it could be theme-park replicas of Old World settings. Although it may look like it came from the planet Disney, the design of most new restaurants comes from South Florida and southern California.

Sharp design is a must in a new restaurant after 20 years of MTV flash. Restaurants now average between $1,000 and $3,000 a seat to create the right environment. Seating, lighting fixtures, crystal, flatware, linens and, oh, those bathrooms are thoroughly upscale too. Restaurants today have as many decorating ideas as glossy magazines.

We were jolted into the modern era two years ago when Citrus Park Mall opened with Rice & Co.'s sushi bar in the round and the neon Southwest of Cino Grille. And we have had a few other sharp dressers -- Boulevard Bistro, Ovo, Cafe B.T., Redwoods -- but now there are stunning visuals on the menu of every new restaurant, from the village Italian of Romano's Macaroni Grill to the Kandinsky sweep of Dish.

A few independents, such as Pappas' Grillmarks and Snapper's, undertook massive renovations to keep up. Others will have to make do with fresh paint and imagination (and a commitment to cleanliness).

Modern diners, however, will no longer accept moldy carpet, dirty restrooms, fake flowers, cheesy trellises or chipped plates. They can and will go elsewhere.

Weakness in the food flank

Food in the new restaurants is visually appealing too, whether an eye-popping construction of satay skewers and spirals of daikon root, or a craggy loaf of peasant bread just out of a brick oven.

You can't eat decor or the looks of food, unfortunately, and the taste from the big corporate outfits rarely matches the razzle-dazzle appearance. There are a few exceptions; mine have so far been at Gratzzi, Roy's, Zazarac and Big City.

Most new restaurants are driven by "concepts" or menus handed down from an owner or headquarters, rather than by individual chefs inspired by the day's ingredients and their passions.

Yet diners know what some independent restaurateurs ignore: Chain food has gotten better, much better. Once the stuff of fast food joints, pizza and pasta houses and steak places, chain fare was at best boringly consistent (garnished with clean restrooms). In the past 10 years, Romano's and Carraba's elevated Italian foods. Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, Einstein and Panera have given new life to simple coffees and breads. Even the steak-'n'-peanuts roadhouses gave us new respect for the sweet potato.

The good chain restaurants know taste counts, especially to diners with appetites newly whetted by the Food Network. They can and do buy better ingredients, hire bigger, better staffs from line cooks to pastry chefs and take their guidance from top culinary talent, including Roy Yamaguchi, Zazarac's Anne Kearney or Tomatina's Michael Chiarello.

That new concern ranges from gourmet to barbecue; indeed, Lee Roy Selmon's Southern Comfort, which may have the best of the new menus, was the product of a crack corporate test kitchen and old family recipes.

The corporations can also create a market where it is easier to obtain from suppliers -- and sell to customers -- the likes of duck breast and haricots verts.

Despite improvements, food remains the chain's weakest link and the independent's best opportunity.

Marshalling the service troops

While you wonder if there are enough diners to eat in all these places, the puzzler for restaurateurs is whether there are enough people to staff them.

Staffing is tough for restaurateurs anywhere, but the answer here is more yes than no.

New corporate restaurants are tough competitors who can offer workers health insurance, vacations and better pay (a dishwasher might make $8 or $9 an hour rather than minimum wage), as well as training and a chance to move up or own a piece of the business.

That has caused turmoil and turnover around the bay, as waiters jump quickly to greener pastures. Better pay and new glamor to the restaurant career have also drawn a broader group of smart, polished applicants to all positions in the restaurant and corporate trainers who can turn them into professionals.

Chain money also means big wait staffs, with as few as three tables to wait on, and enough supervisors to flood a dining room with suits.

Many independent restaurants say they can't match corporate salaries and perks, but they try. They win employee loyalty with a non-corporate sense of family and respect, flexible hours and pride in creative, distinctive food. Top independent chefs also offer day-to-day teaching, while they borrow the chain's more modern training techniques.

Yes, I still run into bad attitude, bad hygiene, bad manners and general ignorance in restaurants, new and old. Slowly, however, more servers know and care about food (and even wine), show the way to the restroom, get the bill right and make you feel at ease and at home.

Creative counterattacks

While some parts of the economy slow down, the demand for someone else to do the cooking continues to grow. Floridians, especially, dine out for more meals than ever, and they are spending more.

Certainly, too many compete for that money and not every one will succeed -- and new corporate restaurants will fail too. The big news is that corporate restaurants now compete for special occasion meals as well, when dinner for two can top $100, not just middlebrow fare. Ten years ago only a handful of restaurants in the area charged such prices; today more than two dozen do, including five steakhouses where the meat alone can cost $30. The number of diners who spend that much are few, and now they have many more choices.

What's an independent restaurant to do? Envy and bemoan the impossible financial advantages and advertising budgets of the big guys, sure, but then what?

Many concentrate on neighborhood clientele; some focus on a bistro price range, where a good dinner is less than $50 for two.

A select group of valiant independents has formed the Tampa Bay Independent Restaurant Association for mutual aid, while Tampa's SoHo restaurants plan to advertise jointly. A few seek their own economies of scale: Tarpon Spring's Ballyhoo has gone from one location to four in five years and has three more on the drawing board.

Some succeed in the very shadow of competition, such as Chateau France, Pacific Wave, Grand Finale and Ambrosia, all a few blocks from the $200-million BayWalk complex.

A surprising number actually welcome the new arrivals and credit them with setting new standards in local dining and kicking the excitement up a notch.

"I think it's positive," said Peter Kreuziger, who has run Bon Appetit in Dunedin for 25 years. "It brings a whole new life to our industry, which had become rather stagnant. It's good for the customers, it's good for the employees, it's good for everybody."

Others waste little time envying big corporate budgets for ads, decor and staff; the smallest restaurants must address those elements while still trading on their advantages of great, imaginative food and personal service. "It's a tough market. You have to be smart, more than smart," says Jeannie Pierola, executive chef at Bern's and SideBerns. "You have to have your heart in it, and your customer has to know it."

And you still need luck and constant improvement.

Still, she's glad to see big money and famous chefs here, as signs that the area is increasingly food-savvy.

While advertising and television package and sell lifestyle, modern consumers are eager co-conspirators now, hungry to buy a branded dining experience, the culinary equivalent of the Gap. For all the steak chains here, some beefeaters still hunger for the arrival of Morton's of Chicago or Smith & Wollensky. Yet that can make the home-made, hand-crafted, local and independent more precious.

What makes a city a great food town is not that it has the 17th branch of a chain or the fifth restaurant of a famous chef. Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, New York and Miami taste great because they have a wealth of unique flavors, one-of-a-kind chefs and enterprising restaurants.

That may come in a few years when chefs with corporate restaurants decide to leave and open their own restaurants. Thus, the corporations carry within them the seeds of change and hope.

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