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Outback puts lid on Zazarac in Tampa

The Louisiana restaurant will be retooled as a less expensive, casual cafe. But the Orlando restaurant will remain open.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 24, 2001


TAMPA -- It didn't take long: Tampa's high-end restaurant boom has turned in on itself.

Outback Steakhouse closed Zazarac, its high-end Louisiana restaurant here, and will reopen it with a less expensive, casual format. The decision came after a year of disappointing sales, thanks in part to competition from a never-ending stream of upscale restaurants.

The increased competition for top-dollar dining has crimped many restaurants, large and small, but the closing of Zazarac is the most serious fallout on a corporate restaurant.

While Zazarac in Tampa served its last stuffed quail and court-bouillon Saturday night, the restaurant's second location, which opened last month in Orlando, continues with a sophisticated menu and decor, and four-course check prices between $32 and $45 per person.

"We still believe in the integrity of concept and we're very proud of it. We know it will work in the right location in the right market," founding partner John Cooper said Monday.

The right location, however, was not a corner of Henderson Boulevard in Tampa, especially during a yearlong onslaught of new restaurants.

"It was the right restaurant in the wrong location," a place that could not draw hotel guests and business travelers as well as the West Shore area, Cooper said. "As affluent as South Tampa is, there are not enough of (local customers) to put people in the seats."

So Outback closed Zazarac and laid off most of its 40 employees, a rare occurrence for the company. Hourly employees were given two weeks' pay.

Next will be to make the restaurant more casual and family friendly. The prices will be closer to $20 per person, between Outback's Steakhouses and Carrabba's, its Italian chain. "It will be significantly less sophisticated," Cooper said.

Anne Kearney, the critically acclaimed chef of Peristyle in New Orleans, who consulted on the concept, "is working on a new menu that will have more casual items and more fried foods, still centered in the south Louisiana cuisine," Cooper said.

The revamped restaurant in Tampa will have a new name, such as Zaz Creole Cafe. The Zazarac name will be reserved for the Orlando restaurant and future restaurants with the sophisticated menu.

Zazarac was the first of four ventures Outback unveiled here in a little more than a year to test new concepts, often going high-end with the help of prominent chefs and restaurateurs as partners.

Last summer, Zazarac sales were slow but improving and could have made $3-million or more by the end of 2000. But by October, numbers dropped as Centro Ybor opened and Outback opened a cluster of restaurants -- Fleming's Prime Steaks, Lee Roy Selmon's barbecue and Southern cooking and Roy's Asian fusion -- on Boy Scout Boulevard.

John Glass, an analyst with Deutsche Bank in New York who follows Outback, wasn't surprised to hear of the closing. "Making a restaurant successful is like making a hit movie," he said. "You have to open up several of them to see what works."

In fact, Glass said most investors wouldn't mind if Outback took its time retooling Zazarac.

"I think the market would like to see them back away from Zazarac . . . and focus their time and capital on more proven concepts," he said. Outback has a full plate, with concepts such as Carrabba's, Fleming's and Roy's in different stages of growth. Outback will report its second-quarter earnings Wednesday.

While Roy's and Fleming's were partnerships with existing nationwide chains, Zazarac was designed to be a smaller, more intimate venture.

Outback executives looked carefully for a renowned chef and got Kearney to create an upscale restaurant based on fresh ingredients and classic cooking that represented New Orlean's fine dining, not fiery backwoods Cajun cooking. They designed a handsome contemporary restaurant with polished wood, sleek lines -- and no Mardi Gras masks.

Cooper, a former joint venture partner with Outback in Orlando and the husband of Outback vice president Trudy Cooper, said the Henderson location had been purchased when he joined the project.

Yet its out-of-the-way location was considered an asset at first. "In good "restaurant towns' people like places that are a little secluded and intimate," Cooper said. "It's the kind of place that concierges tell you about and the locals know."

But Cooper said he thinks, "Tampa is not a "restaurant town' yet."

- Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report.

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