Tampa’s Chain Gang
Some of America’s most popular restaurant concepts were cooked up right here in Tampa Bay
Story by: Erika Vidal Holmes
Bloomin’ Onions and Hooters Girls—an internationally recognized dish and an iconic persona, both born right here in the Bay area.
Since Hooters opened its doors in Clearwater in 1983, it has become a worldwide phenomenon. Five years to the day after the first Outback Steakhouse opened in South Tampa, the franchise celebrated the opening of its 100th location. And these aren’t the only major American restaurant chains to call the Bay area their birthplace. Beef O’Brady’s, Red Lobster and up-and-comer GrillSmith started here too.
So what makes the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area so appealing to restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs? According to Lorin Drake, board member of the Florida Marketing Research Association and vice president of consulting services at Schwartz Consulting Partners, Inc. in Tampa, “the Bay area demographics match up really well with the national demographics, especially on things like ethnicity, income, education, etc. Because the (Tampa Bay) market ‘mirrors’ the U.S. as a whole demographically, it is often chosen as a test market.”
For Outback co-founders Bob Basham and Trudy Cooper, it was as much about convenience as prime demographics. They and fellow founder Chris Sullivan had been in the restaurant management business for years with Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s and Chili’s before opening Outback. Launching anywhere other than Tampa simply wasn’t an option; not only was Tampa their home base, they were confident Tampa had what it took to support the concept.
“We thought it was a good market based on the size of it,” Basham said. “Tampa was the 13th or 14th biggest market. And cities with professional football teams are usually pretty vibrant and growing, so it had that going for it. It was a great area for tourism.”
Cooper, who serves as senior vice president of training and development for OSI Restaurant Partners, added, “Certainly the demo was there, but it was important that there was an ambassadorship that could launch a new idea. The founders and their associates served as those ambassadors. Tampa offered a great neighborhood support.”
Basham, Cooper, Sullivan and Tim Gannon (who worked with them at Steak and Ale and developed Outback’s menu) opened the first Outback on Henderson Boulevard in March 1988. Their intention was to expand to four or five locations in the Bay area.
“They were going to be dinner only so we could play more golf,” Basham said with a laugh. Before they knew it, they were being asked to open locations in Atlanta, Dallas, Jacksonville and beyond. The first few Bay area Outbacks had become popular snowbird/tourist lunch and dinner destinations, according to Basham, so when it began expanding to other markets it had a built-in customer base because people were already familiar with it. GrillSmith creator and Melting Pot CEO Mark Johnston shares a similar motivation for choosing Clearwater as the location for the first GrillSmith six years ago. He and his brother, Bob, both New York natives, opened The Melting Pot’s Tallahassee and Tampa locations and made Tampa their headquarters.
“Our whole company was here,” Johnston explains. But its success—GrillSmith recently opened its sixth location in the Tampa area and is looking to open in other states—is likely due to a combination of the Bay area’s size and demographics as well as the restaurant’s casual atmosphere, affordable prices and quality food. Though he can’t talk details just yet, Johnston has a couple new fast-casual concepts in the works. His test market? The Bay area, of course.