How Growth Through Unique Concepts is Orlando’s Recipe for Success

May 21, 2015

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Orlando foodies may be ready for a second helping of their favorite restaurants, but local chefs say the key to growing Orlando’s restaurant industry isn’t about expanding existing concepts. Rather, it’s about bringing something unique to the table.

Not only does this philosophy help steer clear of the chain restaurant stigma Orlando has come to be known for, but it also appeals to a larger pool of visitors who have a growing appetite for new concepts.

“From an Orlando point of view, having independent restaurants that aren’t an early start of a chain creates a better image of Orlando as a restaurant destination,” said restaurant analyst Darren Tristano, vice president of Technomic Inc. “Ideally, if the independent restaurants are good and have potential to win awards, that’s going to help, too. Today, independent restaurants are outperforming chains because they can adapt to changes and be more innovative with their menus more rapidly than chains that have to do that in multiple locations around the country. It contributes to a better destination and food city.”

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Independent restaurants also can contribute to economic development efforts, said downtown developer Craig Ustler, who also is the principal of the Citrus, Soco and Cityfish restaurants in Orlando. “I would make the argument that chefs like The Rusty Spoon’s Kathleen Blake are just as valuable as a tech startup, and for some reason, I don’t think the community thinks that way about food. Other cities have built an image around food, and we haven’t yet gotten that message.”

He also believes the restaurant industry aligns well with the Orlando Economic Development Commission’s “You Don’t Know the Half of It” branding campaign — designed to highlight the fact that Orlando is more than just tourism — not only as a way to better highlight the city’s food scene, but also a way to better align Orlando with people who travel for food.

“People are planning vacations around where to eat or thinking about what restaurants to go to. When visitors are in Orlando, they’re thinking of attractions. We’re the tourism capital, and we need to understand how to tie in restaurants, how to capture a better market share of the 60 million-plus people who come here. If, on average, 3 million-5 million tourists are in town, and if you got 1 percent to come downtown, that’s like 30,000 people.”

As Chef Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant said, Orlando is like the tale of two cities. Tourists visit Walt Disney World and International Drive, and many never venture farther to where the locals live and dine to experience the true Orlando.

While the city has emerged as a competitive marketplace for large chains, that reputation has thwarted its efforts to be known as a food destination.

Tristano believes it’s an opportunity for the city to support the growth of new independent concepts. “Orlando has to encourage a higher level of more fine-dining restaurants and even more upscale casual restaurants focused on redefining Orlando as more of a restaurant city. The city has to decide it wants independents and have supporting benefits and development of space for it.”

While there are some risks in restaurant owners having two different concepts, Tristano said there are plenty of advantages over opening a second location of your existing brand, including:

* You may cannibalize sales by creating a second location instead of a new concept.

* The perception of having two locations may mislead the customer to think it’s a chain, so you lose the independent feel.

* Having another concept gives you a different appeal to the marketplace and, ultimately, if one is better than the other or one struggles, you have an opportunity later to transform the other into the more successful concept.

* Foodies and affluent consumers look for more differentiation.

* The Food & Drug Administration requires restaurants with 20 or more units under the same name to put calorie and nutritional counts on their menu. So independents and smaller chains don’t have to label their menus.

Meanwhile, Bob Amick, president and owner of Atlanta-based Concentrics restaurants, has watched Orlando’s culinary scene evolve during the past 10 years.

Amick, who does independent restaurant concepts across the U.S., helped open local concepts like Luma on Park and Prato in Winter Park, and now is working with Unicorp National Developments Inc. on the new Slate restaurant in Dr. Phillips and with Tavistock on a new eatery in Lake Nona.

Thanks to its theme parks, the visitors Orlando attracts aren’t the typical customer who drives the up-and-coming restaurant industry, he said. So, instead, Orlando needs to attract and develop more restaurateurs and chefs who are willing to take risks.

“Restaurant cities really are driven by local chefs who are mentoring young up-and-coming chefs, like a feeder system,” Amick said. “The town grows from that from a culinary standpoint. It’s harder for Orlando with the outsourcing of theme parks and international chains around I-Drive.”

And just as Amick has watched Orlando develop a mix of local chefs and restaurateurs, he said the next step is to continue growing downtown Orlando. “If people get out and enjoy all aspects of Orlando, continue to bring more life to downtown, that will do more for Orlando than anything, in my opinion. The great restaurant towns in America have great downtowns.”

Total number of restaurants in Orlando

Fiscal 2010: 457

Fiscal 2011: 511

Fiscal 2012: 568

Fiscal 2013: 661

Fiscal 2014: 754

Number of restaurant openings in Orlando

Fiscal 2010: 48

Fiscal 2011: 4 1

Fiscal 2012: 76

Fiscal 2013: 67

Fiscal 2014: 107

Number of restaurant closures in Orlando

Fiscal 2010: 3

Fiscal 2011: 2

Fiscal 2012: 9

Fiscal 2013: 6

Fiscal 2014: 36

By the numbers

$36.4B: Projected 2015 sales at Florida’s restaurants

943,600: Restaurant jobs in Florida in 2015