What does this have to do with
|by Chris Sherman|
that lift it above the new "better burger" places — treats
like po'boy shrimp burgers, bananas foster shakes and toasted
marshmallow sauce for the sweet potato fries.
Even more amazing is Mark Johnston's answer to the question,
how many Burger 21s would you like to open in, say,
five years? "1,000."
That's right, one thousand. A remarkable goal in this economy
for any business, let alone a Florida restaurant.
very practical restaurant background. The Johnston family
started the Melting Pot fondue chain and now presides over
146 Pots in the U.S. and abroad, plus six GrillSmiths in
Tampa Bay. In starting GrillSmith, the Johnstons made their
first collaboration with an independent chef, and now they
have one as a full partner in their expansion into burgers
and, yes, pizza.
He is Chris Ponte, a local hero of Tampa Bay culinarians
and a graduate of the Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Ponte worked at Taillevent and Payard, and then opened Café
Ponte in Clearwater, a Golden Spoon regular. Ponte is the one
who made the molten marshmallow dip for the crispy seasoned
fries as carefully as he makes truffled mushroom bisque at his
Johnston's new Front Burner Brands also includes Peels, Ponte
pizzerias still in development.
Such partnerships are becoming more common as both diners and
restaurateurs adjust to a new reality of changing tastes, hours
and formats that demand foodie-quality, at lower prices, in
both stand-alone restaurants and chains.
"We see it in all our restaurants, ours and his. People we saw
at least four times a year, now we see once or two," Johnston
concedes. "I think the new sweet spot is between $7 and $12."
Diners want quality at that price point, even in a burger.
Johnston, his wife, Arlene, and Ponte went through at least
20 tasting sessions to find the right mix and grind for the
basic burger. Then there's chicken, turkey, tuna and black
bean burgers — hand-pressed fresh and gently formed into
regulation burgers and slider four-packs, then trimmed with
onion jam, bacon and cheeses on a shiny brioche bun.
All this is chef-inspired food without the chef price and
carefully plotted to be repeated at least 400 to 500 times, ideally 1,000.
A Mediterranean Collaboration
Wine Bar, a stylish, 140-seat Mediterranean restaurant in
the Northwood Plaza area of Clearwater. Here too, chain
veterans are collaborating with creative independent chefs.
In this case, the man at the door and chatting diners up at
tableside is no less than a laid-back Chris Sullivan, better
known as the founder of Outback.
Times have changed, but he clearly enjoys it. The economy may
be tough, but "people aren't going to stop eating and drinking,
" he says, "and they still want to go out somewhere."
They are eating differently, in smaller bits and pieces,
healthily and less formally, Sullivan says. His favorite
dish on the menu is the mezze platter — three kinds of hummus
and baba ganoush, starring muhamarra, the smoky Syrian dip of
red peppers pomegranate, molasses and ground walnuts.
and lollipops of lamb chops and meatballs, too. But the menu
takes a broad tour of the Mediterranean through the Middle
East and North Africa as well southern Europe. So the shrimp
can be stuffed with Greek skordalia potatoes or grilled with
Spanish romesco; saffron-pine nut chicken is served with
olives and quinoa couscous; and fries are made of chickpea
flour. The menu came together from an honor roll of
local chefs and is now in the hands of Steve Cook, formerly
of Mise en Place in Tampa. Most sides of fries, soups and
dips run from $2 to $4. And most pastas and entrees come in
small and large portions (none over $13). Likewise for wine:
Three-ounce pours start at $3, and a long list of "interesting"
whites and reds can be had for $29 to $82 a bottle.
Sullivan isn't talking about big numbers — yet. "I just want to
get this one right and maybe a second." However, he and
former Outbacker Nancy Schneid have assembled a team of
top restaurant veterans. Just in case.