MANATEE -- Sara Soda Drive-In is aiming to embrace the '50s car-hop experience with a retro theme, replacing a previous drive-in that didn't last five months in Bayshore Gardens.
"I wanted to focus more on that drive-in experience and make it that fun, summer, Florida environment," owner Brandon Jenkins said.
When drivers pull up on 14th Street West after Sara Soda opens this week, they'll notice the bright bubblegum colors popping out with art honoring the old soda jerks of days gone by and TVs playing cartoons, but in many ways it will be like its predecessor.
The menu will be simplified and more value-driven while offering food that isn't frozen.
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Fast, fresh casual concepts are booming in the restaurant industry with investors and retail real estate experts looking for the next Chipotle, Jersey Mike's or PDQ.
During the International Council of Shopping Centers Global Retail Real Es
tate Convention last month, dozens of fast-casual restaurants were trying to break into new markets, some with only a handful of locations. Matthew Harding, president and chief operating officer at Levin Management in Plainfield, N.J., said restaurants are seeing a return to growth in retail projects, including those with higher price points.
"We're doing a number of transactions with restaurants, with higher-end restaurants," Harding said.
For Jenkins, the price point for fast-casual appeared to be a bit too high in a budget-conscious neighborhood and shopping center anchored by Target and Publix.
To draw customers in, Sara Soda is doing a kids night Mondays and Tuesdays where a kids meal will be 99 cents with the purchase of an adult meal.
"Mom and dad can come in and eat for gosh, 13, 14 bucks or something like that," Jenkins said.
Sara Soda could be open as early as Wednesday at 6008 14th St. W. inside the Bayshore Gardens Shopping Center.
The hours will remain the same, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closed Sundays.
Jenkins worked for Sax in Tennessee and came to help the former owners as a manager. Now he's in charge. Owner Kyle Berry is no longer involved and previous co-owner Shawn Massey is partially involved.
Customers online critiqued Sax as having slightly high prices even though it was fresh fast food and for it being a bit messy for a car.
Jenkins said he has listened and is making changes. Gone is the butcher paper that allowed juices from the burgers to soak through into your lap, replaced with better packaging, he said. Gone are the higher prices, too.
"Where's the place where you can get the $2 burger, or get a burger, side and a drink for less than five bucks? That place you know is fresh?" Jenkins said. "Here it is."
Popular items like the chicken salad and shakes will be back, along with hand-battered chicken sandwiches, onion rings and slushies, Jenkins said.
Jenkins isn't sure why the Sax concept didn't work. The restaurant closed last week, but Sara Soda still is operating under Sax's paperwork and licensing.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.