Mall at University Town Center leaving sweet and sour taste for local restaurants

Sarasota family bakery excited, but Manatee restaurants worried about national eateries

cschelle@bradenton.comJuly 16, 2014 

UNIVERSITY PARK -- The Mall at University Town Center is anticipated to be a boon for at least one mom and pop shop and a bane for some local restaurants.

In 90 days, the 880,000-square-foot, two-level mall will finally open Oct. 16, featuring more than 100 shops and restaurants with the majority being company stores and chains. Some stores will be operated by locals, but a Sarasota-based bakery looks like it could be the only independent, family run shop in the mall.

The presence of chain restaurants at the mall also has local restaurants concerned-- not just about competition for potential diners, but for the potential loss of employees.

The Sweeter Side

Sweet Doctors, operated by son and mother Michael and Cheryl Stinson of Sarasota, will open a 1,200-square-foot bakery on the first level of the mall near Macy's.

Michael Stinson, a Sarasota High School alumnus, discovered his passion for baking after school and learned his mother's recipes and decoration skills for cake pops, cheesecakes and some special creations like s'mores cookies.

"We're the Sweet Doctors -- we have a cure for your sweet tooth," Stinson said inside his bakery Tuesday. "I enjoy it a lot when you do a wedding and see the person's face light up and you made their day."

The original location opened three years ago at 4607 S. Tamiami Trail inside The Hamlet shopping center beside Honey Baked Ham. Michael Stinson is the lead cake artist, while his mom coordinates events.

The mall also features full-service restaurants BRIO Tuscan Grille, The Capital Grille, The Cheesecake Factory, Kona Grill, Seasons 52 and Sophie's, which will be on the second floor of Saks Fifth Avenue. That's in addition to several fast casual restaurants.

Stinson never thought he'd be in the mall among some behemoth names, but there's something about that batter that convinced the mall's operators to say yes.

"We didn't even think we would get in there because we're a locally owned business," Stinson said. "We pretty much brought Benderson and Taubman samples and they all loved it, and now we're in."

The mall location will give Sweet Doctors exposure to a different side of the market, gaining more wedding business, too, as the shop is known for its cake ball towers. The shop will also offer some new items including tarts and pies, and will have a coffee station and some seating.

The work with local design firms Balaity Property Enhancement features a revamped logo to help draw people into the store, Stinson said. Construction is anticipated to start in a couple weeks.

The south Sarasota location will continue to serve as the primary location for appointments for special events and weddings, he said. The Oct. 16 opening will also be key, and a hectic one because it's a popular wedding month for the area, Stinson added.

His four employees at the Sarasota location will also be trained to work the mall location. Stinson is looking to recruit from friends and local culinary schools to find employees for the holiday season.

Well poached?

The mall isn't too sweet for local restaurateurs when it comes to hiring.

Pier 22 executive chef and general manager Greg Campbell is concerned he could lose some of his best staff to at least one of the restaurants in the new mall. While he realizes turnover takes place in the business, he contends recruitment should be more courteous.

"The last thing I would do is to just cold call another restaurant and say hey, I can offer you X, Y, Z to come work for me," Campbell said.

One recruiter for Seasons 52, a Darden restaurant, called his catering manager during work offering a job opportunity for an event manager. Campbell's employee told him about the incident, and in exchange, Campbell said he called the recruiter and asked him to stop.

Tommy Klauber, owner and chef at Polo Grill and Bar in Lakewood Ranch, also had recruiters call from EHS Hospitality Group, who also recruit for Darden and other restaurants at the mall. He considers these calls a "gray area."

"Where do they find them?" Klauber asked about the recruiters. "In high-level, quality establishments, it's not necessarily the way business was done in the past, but I think today it's a fairly standard practice to call businesses and try to recruit employees who are at work."

EHS lists BRIO, Seasons 52, Capital Grille, Kona Grill and Cheesecake Factory among its clients on its website. A representative from the EHS Sarasota office did not return a request for comment by deadline Tuesday.

With seven restaurants hiring about 100 employees each all at once, it could put a temporary drain on restaurants staffed with experienced employees right as the height of tourism season starts. Those jobs make up part of the 2,000 jobs anticipated to be created by the new mall.

At 90 days out, restaurants are hiring managers; at 60 days out to two weeks prior to opening, the rest of staff will be hired, according to area restaurant owners.

Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said the company and its recruiters are letting people know about openings and it's up to workers whether to apply.

"It's a very common practice for recruiters to reach out to employees in any industry, and restaurants are no different," Jeffers said. "It's not something unique to our company."

Other restaurant managers visit Darden's properties often and recruit as well, Jeffers added. Employees interested in working at Capital Grille or Seasons 52 can visit

Touting local restaurants

Kate Atkin, executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals restaurant association, frowns on the practice. She is working on a way to boost awareness about the area's award-winning local restaurants.

"We definitely thought about ways we can more educate the consumer not only about supporting local business, but retail business too," she said. "We want to let them know that those recipes you'll taste at family-owned restaurants are true family traditions and not something out of a corporate cookbook."

Fifty to 70 percent of the money spent at a locally owned restaurant goes back into the local community, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Campbell wants to make sure folks going to the mall still keep the local restaurants in mind.

"Buying local is what sustains a community long-term and builds businesses," Campbell said.

John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, doesn't know directly if his employees are being recruited.

"I would be upset if I didn't have someone trying to steal my people," he said, noting that it shows he has quality employees.

At the same time, there's no place for active recruitment within the same market in the dining room or over the phone.

"I would never call somebody in my own area and say we're coming in," Horne said.

What will probably happen, Horne and Campbell guess, is that the new restaurants will over-hire, probably bringing in 100 to 150 people to start, and see many quit or be let go after the stress of opening is over or the tips or commission don't match employees' expectations.

"The grass isn't always greener," Horne said.

For Klauber, he's bridging the two worlds. His restaurant will cater for 3,000 people at the mall's grand opening Oct. 16, he said. The hiring issue? It's only temporary, Klauber predicted.

"I'm concerned about this season for staffing. But I do think it's going to be cyclical," Klauber said. "It's going to be a big hit this fall, and this time next year the dust will settle. It'll be business as usual."

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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