About a year and a half ago, Damian Mandola, co-founder of Carrabba’s Italian Grill, took a trip to Florida he won’t soon forget.

The intention was to handle business related to Carrabba’s, but the destination was Tampa Bay—home of industry veteran Paul Avery, a man Mandola admired. The relationship dates back several years to when Avery was COO of Bloomin’ Brands (originally called OSI Restaurant Partners), the parent of Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s, and Outback Steakhouse.

Given the respect Mandola has for Avery’s business acumen, Trina Mandola, Mandola’s wife and business partner, saw an opportunity. She suggested Mandola present Avery with Mandola’s Italian Kitchen, an experiential fast-casual brand founded by the couple in 2006. The concept has since grown to four locations throughout Texas.

So Mandola and Director of Operations David Rosenberger traveled to the Sunshine State, bringing tales of Mandola’s Italian Kitchen, which offers daily prepared ingredients, homemade sauces, and upscale plates, flatware, and glassware.

“You don’t see that,” says Mandola, referencing the quality of his restaurant’s food and amenities. “Not many people can do that, and that’s what we bring to the table.”

After about a week, an intrigued Avery asked to visit a restaurant.

“He knows the business so well,” says Avery, who serves as CEO of World of Beer Bar & Kitchen. “His years of experience in building restaurants and bringing incredible flavors to life is an amazing talent that he has and that he’s been polishing for many, many years. So he has the utmost integrity and reputation in the industry. I’m just so honored that he asked me to look at his concept.”

As Avery took his tour, he was impressed with the commitment to quality and passion expressed by employees. The economic model appeared positive and the atmosphere proved lively, charming, and appealing.

Avery was convinced. Mandola’s Italian Kitchen needed to make its way to Florida.

“Fast-casual often connotes certain impressions to people, but this is a great atmosphere. It’s colorful, lively, the textures, colors, and finishes and furniture that [Trina’s] put in is really, really impressive,” says Avery, who notes Tampa, home to Bloomin’, has been an incubator for new restaurants for decades. “There’s nothing out there like this. There’s certainly nothing in Tampa like it. I’ve got a good sense of the industry, and I know that there’s nothing out there operating quite like Mandola’s.”

Fast forward to fall 2020, and the first Florida location is set to open in Riverview on October 26. Mandola and Avery will then direct their attention toward Tampa and other Florida markets, with the overall goal of opening four locations by 2022.

The 5,500-square-foot Riverview location will include indoor seating for about 120 customers and 1,000 square feet of outdoor patio space that can seat 50 guests—a feature that has become crucial for restaurants amid COVID concerns.

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“That’s very important because a lot of people even though we’re wearing masks and the tables are distanced, they still are afraid to sit inside,” Mandola says. “So having a nice amount of outdoor seating is very prudent.”

The brand fancies itself as a fast-casual concept with the look and feel of a full-service restaurant.

That theme has proven to have broad demographic appeal, meaning the restaurant isn’t boxed into particular real estate—a good sign for growth potential.

“This is a family restaurant. That’s what’s neat about it,” Mandola says. “You see moms and dads and kids. … You get a varying degree of different people. At 4 o’clock you’ll see some of our elder folks come in for an early dinner and then you see the moms and dads in the evenings.”

Mandola says the Italian eatery has performed well amid the pandemic, although that wasn’t always the case. He described the closure of dining rooms in Texas as devastating. But as capacity restrictions have relented, business has continued to improve.

Right now, the company is doing a 50/50 split between dine-in and off-premises sales.

“Little by little we see in-room dining coming back,” Mandola says. “… It’s a challenge, but we’re making do here in Austin. For all intents and purposes, we’re doing well. We’re making a little money. And at this point and time, just to say that is an accomplishment.”

While Texas is allowing 75 percent capacity, the Floridian Mandola’s Italian Kitchen will likely make its debut at full strength. On September 25, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced an executive order that allowed restaurants to operate at full capacity.

“One would like to think that this COVID paralysis is going to pass in due time,” Avery says. “We don’t know how long that will be, but it will pass. Gov. DeSantis made a very bold move to free up the industry in the state to 100 percent capacity, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being responsible with our staff and the environment and sanitation, which we of course take very seriously. But it is good timing for us.”

Capturing sales outside the four walls is a primary goal for the brand, as well. Avery explains the new restaurant includes an enhanced takeaway area to increase efficiency and that more curbside and delivery parking spaces were negotiated in the lease agreement. He anticipates high takeout demand for the pastries, cookies, and pies, along with the to-go beverage program that includes canned Prosecco and bottled Bellini’s.

The restaurateurs also see potential in Mandola’s Italian Kitchen’s catering, which involves a mobile brick pizza oven and complementary gelato cart.

“We’ll of course have our online ordering available for folks, and that should be a very customer-friendly, efficient process online for our customers,” Avery says. “So we have our IT team working on bringing that to life.”

Avery says that if good fortune comes their way, Mandola’s Italian Kitchen should develop into a significant national concept.

But right now, the focus is building a strong foundation of employees and remaining intensely focused on opening the Riverview unit successfully.

“To the extent that we execute our business real well, I think we’re going to attract a good investment community as well as those interested in operating locations,” Avery says.

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Web Exclusives