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Fierce competition a staple of Brandon’s restaurant industry

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image The closure of Barnacles last month after 15 years, was the latest casualty in Brandon’s restaurant wars. Kevin Brady Photo

In the battle for your belly, Brandon area restaurants are fighting harder than ever for your dining dollar.

By Kevin Brady
 
It’s a battle for your belly, and they mean business.

You can’t swing a cow in Brandon without someone wanting to slice it, fry it, cover it with sautéed onions and cheese and put it in between two buns. In the battle for your belly, Brandon area restaurants are fighting harder than ever for your dining dollar. It’s the Battle of the Bulge without those pesky Germans.

And there is no shortage of customers.

Draw a 5-mile circle around the Westfield Brandon mall and you have 184,000 people with an average household income of $61,556, according to Regency Centers, which runs the Regency Square Mall on State Road 60 in Brandon.

The closure of Barnacles last month after 15 years, was the latest casualty in Brandon’s restaurant wars. But no sooner had the paint dried on the closed sign at the sports bar on Providence Road than new eateries were announcing plans to open.

“This is a very competitive market with a large demographic of many different people and it takes different things to please them,” said Paula Thompson, a manager at Barnacles for 14 years.

There are 157 restaurants in the Brandon area, according to a June report from the Florida  Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Taco Bus is the latest restaurant to enter the fray. The iconic school bus at Falkenburg Road just north of State Road 60 specializes in Mexican, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free recipes. A Tampa icon, Taco Bus opened in Seminole Heights 20 years ago and also operates in St. Petersburg, North Tampa and downtown Tampa. The Brandon location, with seating for more than 100 diners, is its largest yet.

Owner and chef Rene Valenzuela had no reservations about coming to Brandon.

“I knew Brandon would be a popular location but I am surprised by just how many customers we have had since we opened.”

Sean Rice, co-owner of O’Brien’s Irish Pub & Grill, looked everywhere from Clearwater to Sarasota before opening in Brandon in 2001. On their first St. Patrick’s Day, O’Brien’s served 700 customers. This year, the pub served 4,000. However, success didn’t come overnight, with Rice and his partner Tony Martin building a loyal following by hosting charity and community events.

“In Ireland, the pub was the town’s hub. It was a meeting place to discuss everything from business to politics and everything in between so it’s second nature for us to be involved in the community and give back. It’s part of the reason you see Irish pubs all over the world.”

The pub’s charity work is the keystone of their success, says Jorge Vega, a salesman who has been selling beer to local bars for 27 years.

“He is everyone’s man when it comes to charity fundraisers here in town and so this has become everyone’s pub,” Vega said.

While competitive, there’s no special formula to managing a successful restaurant in Brandon, Thompson said.

“It’s not brain surgery. It’s all down to customer service, following through and being consistent.”

Now a manager at Zapps, a sports bar that opened near the entranceways to both the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the Westfield Brandon mall, Thompson is working with a raft of former Barnacles staff.

“Barnacles didn’t close because of lack of customers. It just ran its course. We had a huge following, which we are bringing to Zapps. They are our fans.”

Staff is also key, Thompson said.

“We have a group of people here who are hospitality industry professionals. They have been in the profession for 10 years or more and they know the focus has to be on our fans. Hospitality is always #1 and this is something that is sorely lacking in many restaurants in this area.”

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