Two high-end eateries at Sundial is not lunacy

ruthschris-304xx3264-2176-0-136Eric Snider
© 2015 American City Business Journals, Inc. All rights reserved.

Even those of us most bullish on downtown St. Petersburg are inclined to pause when we look at the upper level of Sundial, with its two big swanky restaurants — Sea Salt and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, totaling 22,000 square feet — with relatively high price points.

What manner of rose-colored madness has infected our once-sleepy town, we wonder?

“We’re taking risk knowing the changes going on down here,” said Louie Spetrini, who came from Los Angeles to take the position of general manager at Sea Salt. “We see it through our own eyes; we don’t have the memory of long-time residents.”

A couple of national restaurant consultants with considerable knowledge of the Bay area dining scene don’t think anyone’s gone wacko, as it turns out. Two large-footprint eateries at Sundial fall in line with several nationwide trends.

That the places stare at each other from across a courtyard is more benefit than detriment. “A lifestyle center like [Sundial] having a couple of higher end restaurant makes it more of a destination for upscale dining,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm. “It definitely helps that they’re different products and experiences.”

Orlando-based restaurant consultant Aaron Allen figures that, based on square footage, the two restaurants must do about $12 million combined in annual sales to be viable.

Sea Salt and Ruth’s Chris are not so much fine dining, he says, as “polished casual,” which accommodates larger footprints, customer capacities and check averages. That category, along with lower-priced “fast casual,” are two of the most robust restaurant segments.

The new operators are confident in the continuing growth of the downtown residential and office markets. Plus, “I’ve discovered that there is a huge group of people downtown, retired or financially well off, that go out spending nearly every night,” Spetrini said.

He also recognizes the need to pull from beyond the neighborhood. The GM went table-to-table Tuesday night and happily discovered that “45 percent of the 150 covers we did were from outside St. Pete.”

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