How is Texas Roadhouse outperforming Outback Steakhouse and others?

By Justine Griffin, Tampa Bay Times, Jan. 29, 2017


It’s been a tough couple of years for chain restaurants, including the ones that peddle T-bones and filet mignon.

Logan’s Roadhouse filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Lone Star Steakhouse is shuttering restaurants across the country. Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse, and its parent company, Bloomin’ Brands, have been struggling to break the cycle of quarter after quarter of flat sales.

So how is it that a restaurant chain known for its cheap steaks and encouraging its patrons to throw peanut shells on the floor is outperforming so many others in the casual dining category? Louisville-based Texas Roadhouse is expanding aggressively. In the past three years, Texas Roadhouse has doubled the amount of restaurants it operates in Florida. Two more are set to open this year, and dozens more could be coming soon as the company continues to scout for real estate in the area.

exas Roadhouse was named one of the stocks to watch in 2017 by the Nation’s Restaurant News after its stock prices jumped more than 35 percent last year. Texas Roadhouse has logged 26 quarters in a row of positive sales growth.

There’s no secret ingredient to Texas Roadhouse’s success, whose strategy has remained much the same for decades, says Brian Connors, a consultant with Fort Lauderdale-based Connors Davis Hospitality.

“There’s nothing special about them, it’s just a good, honest, American steakhouse,” Connors said. “They aim and shoot right down Middle America. It’s about meat and potatoes and ice cold beer. Now will they attract the health-conscious, city-living millennials? Probably not, but the 30-somethings with a mini van and two kids? Absolutely.”

Read more here.

Meet Florida’s Legal Drug Cartels

By Justine Griffin, Tampa Bay Times, April 14, 2017

While Florida voters have overwhelmingly voted to make medical marijuana legal, it’s up to the Legislature to translate how it will work. There’s a lot at stake. It may seem like a basic humanitarian issue for patients who want simple and affordable access to medical marijuana. But it’s not. Why? For one, medical marijuana is projected to become a $1 billion industry in Florida within the next three years.

So far, only seven companies have been licensed by the state to produce, cultivate and sell it. They are responsible for providing patients who suffer from debilitating conditions with a medicinal alternative to prescription drugs. Often described as the “cartels,” Florida’s seven licensed cannabis companies have millions in investment behind them. They donated more than a half-million dollars in campaign contributions and employ well-known lobbyists in Tallahassee. Some have started to open dispensaries while others are just getting their production facilities up and running. But none has made any significant profit yet, nor have they since the start in 2014, as the state’s burgeoning patient population is only just starting to grow.

While those who defend the cartel system say it will ensure tight state control, others argue that it will keep prices needlessly high for some patients. When I visited a handful of dispensaries around the state, prices ranged from $50 to $250 for monthly supplies of some products.

“Florida is very different than other states’ medical marijuana programs. The argument is that having only seven companies gives the state more control, but it also creates a quasi monopoly — all the production is concentrated and you lose variety and quality that way,” said Peter Sessa, co-founder of the Tampa-based Florida Cannabis Coalition. “Without an open market, prices will be high for patients who can’t use their insurance to pay for it.”

Midway through the legislative session, the two chambers are still working out how the system will work — laws that would take effect this summer. This much is known. Seven companies will have much of the action, maybe all of it. Here are the seven CEOs behind the state’s currently approved medical marijuana companies.

The Tampa Bay Times analyzed campaign contributions and interviewed executives behind the state’s legal cannabis companies. Here are their backgrounds.

Click here to read more about each company.

Retailers continue to struggle with no saving grace in sight

Tampa Bay Times, April 14, 2017

By Justine Griffin

I’ve written the phrase “it’s been a tough year for retail” more times than I can remember.


Not to sound redundant, but yeah, it’s been a very tough year for retail. And it’s only April.

Retail jobs fell by 30,000 in March, more than any other industry sector, according to the most recent U.S. jobs report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Macy’s announced it would close more stores, including the one that recently shuttered at University Mall in Tampa. The Sears department store closed at Tyrone Square Mall after nearly 50 years of operating there to make room for a future Lucky’s Market and Dick’s Sporting Goods. And with debt piling up, the future of what was once a household brand name, Sears, is as uncertain as ever.

Nine retailers have filed for bankruptcy so far this year — as many as in all of 2016. Sports Authority, Payless Shoe Source, hhgregg, The Limited and Wet Seal, are among those we saw disappear in Tampa Bay. Even the analysts, who have mostly been upbeat about the evolution of retail at least in the six years I’ve been writing about it in Florida, seem grim about the future.

Read more here.

It may be legal now, but opening a medical marijuana store in Florida is harder than you think

By Justine Griffin, Tampa Bay Times, March 3, 2017


TAMPA — The Surterra Therapeutics storefront on Fowler Avenue doesn’t look like the kind of place where people can buy pot.

There’s no green marijuana leaves lit in neon lights nor blacked-out windows. No security guard is checking IDs at the front door. Visitors don’t have to be escorted into another room to see the product.

And that’s on purpose.

As one of seven select companies licensed to grow, manufacture, distribute and sell marijuana in Florida, Surterra Holdings Inc. executives are used to explaining that they’re not in business to be another smoke shop. But that’s tough to do when even the bank lenders, real estate brokers, landlords and insurance agents are wary of doing business with them.

“We’re trying to change the stigma,” said Monica Russell, a spokeswoman for Surterra, who noted even securing insurance for the company’s fleet of delivery trucks has been a challenge. “We want people to come here so they can have a conversation and see we’re actually a health and wellness company.”

Marijuana is still considered an illegal substance at the federal level, despite the 28 states that have legalized it for recreational or medicinal use in recent years. That makes it nearly impossible for banks to fund marijuana distributing companies, which in turn makes it hard to sign a lease for a commercial store or warehouse.

Read more here.

Busch Gardens new president faces headwinds in amusement park industry

By Justine Griffin, Tampa Bay Times, March 1, 2017


TAMPA — After spending more than 30 years working at SeaWorld Entertainment parks across the country, Busch Gardens’ newest park president, Stewart Clark, still wasn’t prepared for the backlash he and his family faced after the release of the documentary, Blackfish.

Clark’s wife, Kelly Flaherty Clark, a longtime animal trainer and spokeswoman at SeaWorld, was prominently featured defending SeaWorld in the documentary from 2013, which explored the controversy over captive killer whales and the death of a SeaWorld trainer.

“There were several very personal and demented attacks on my family,” said Clark, who left his role as vice president of Discovery Cove to become park president of Busch Gardens and Adventure Island in Tampa on Jan. 16. “I told my kids this then and still tell them to this day: Hundreds of thousands of people come to our parks on any given day. They are the quiet supporters who don’t want to engage in a fight on Twitter, but they’re seeing first hand the great conservation and educational work we do.”

Clark, 52, doesn’t have much time to look back. He has a challenging path ahead — in helping bolster both Busch Gardens and his parent company. SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, has struggled financially in recent years. Attendance has dropped significantly at SeaWorld Entertainment’s Florida parks — down 547,000 visitors in 2016 — company officials said during an earnings call earlier this week.

Read more here.