For four years, the blank slab of a four-story cement parking garage has stood across from Bern's Steak House on South Howard Avenue as a monument to the economic recession.
The structure is a reminder of how the landmark restaurant's big dreams to build a sumptuous culinary-themed hotel, catering to business travelers and food lovers, crashed in 2008 after the economic downturn strangled the local real estate market.
Four years later, with the economy digging out of a hole, and new business partners and creative financing becoming available, the Epicurean hotel is set to break ground on construction next month with a target opening of November 2013.
Barring unforeseen obstacles, the $33 million, 140-room resort will give gourmands and business travelers a luxurious food-themed dining and lodging experience, as well as a neighborhood bistro, spa and bakery to visit.
Bern's owner David Laxer and partner Mainsail Lodging and Development of Tampa intend to join forces with Marriott to add the Epicurean to the hotel chain's Autograph Collection of 34 high-end boutique resorts,
Plans for the Epicurean's amenities include the E Bistro, a new ground-floor restaurant that will open to the outdoors in cooler months. Bern's Fine Wines will move to a space in the hotel from its current spot two blocks north at SideBern's, the steak house's modern sister restaurant.
Designers also have included a full-service luxury spa and fitness center, as well as a new bakery called Chocolate Pi, the name of Bern's executive pastry chef Kim Yelvington's former South Tampa pastry business. The bakery will sell to the public and produce breads and pastries for the entire Bern's family of restaurants.
The annual Bern's Winefest food and beverage event, which attracts hundreds of food lovers to South Tampa each April, also would move to the hotel from SideBern's to take advantage of the Epicurean's first-floor banquet hall and a theater-style demonstration kitchen.
"That really is the essence of the hotel," Laxer said. "A big part was that educational classroom component and the wine shop."
The luxury hotel's concept has been tweaked significantly in the five years since it originally was conceived.
A rooftop pool in the original design instead will be located on the ground floor. Rooms on the east side now will have views of Hyde Park, while those on the west side will overlook a second-floor patio with private terraces.
Gone, too, are the original 98-room project's plans to include residential condominiums.
Laxer said during a recent interview that although he believed in the project and the value of the property, it was beneficial financially to stop the process from going forward in 2008.
"Looking at the landscape, if we had gone forward (as a condo hotel), we would have been upside down like everyone else and … it would have been a disaster," he said.
For almost a decade, Laxer contemplated developing the 3-acre, triangle-shaped property abutting the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Possibilities have included apartments, town homes and office space with ground-floor retail shops. In the mid-2000s, he brainstormed with former executive chef Jeannie Pierola about hopping on the boutique hotel trend.
"We were getting into the game late," Laxer said. "Boutique hotels had peaked and were on the way down. We were looking at that and saying, 'This probably isn't going to work.' The signs were out there that everything was starting to turn."
The phased plan originally called for a four-story parking garage to be built first on the western edge of the property. It would not only provide parking for the hotel, but also for the steakhouse. It also would offer a buffer between the hotel and the traffic noise from the Crosstown.
Ultimately, that was the only part of the project to be built before construction started on the hotel.
"It was always a phased plan," Laxer said.
After the project halted, Laxer stayed in contact with the architect Urban Studios and builder The Beck Group. They went back to redraw the project to make more efficient use of the property and to replace the condominium rooms with hotel space, adding about 40 rooms to the building.
"Now there's a middle corridor and rooms on both sides of that corridor," Laxer said. "After going through it and tearing it apart and making it more efficient, I think we have a better functioning hotel."
In early 2011, Laxer and longtime associate Joe C. Collier met to discuss the business climate for bringing back the hotel idea. Collier, who is president of Mainsail, had been working to revamp the five-star Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina in the British Virgin Islands for Marriott International Inc.
Mainsail is a real estate development company with two main segments: hotel and resort lodging, and corporate housing.
Marriott in 2009 launched the Autograph Collection brand within the company's global portfolio with a range of "upper upscale and luxury, independent, hotels with distinctive personalities in major cities and desired destinations worldwide."
Collier told Laxer he thought Marriott might be interested in joining the Epicurean project, even though all of the Autograph hotels were existing properties. The portfolio includes an array of luxury lodging, including the 2,995-room Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and the nine-room Kessler Canyon ranch outside of Denver.
"I said to David, 'Here's a brand that really fits what you're trying to do,'" Collier said.
After meeting with Marriott, company executives visited Tampa to evaluate the market and determine whether the Epicurean would hurt business at their other properties, including the Marriott Waterside in Tampa's Channelside area, the Tampa Marriott Westshore, the Courtyard by Marriott in downtown Tampa and the ExecuStay Apartments at Grand Central in Channelside.
They also were introduced to the 50-year story of Bern's Steak House and the legacy of its founder, Laxer's father, Bern.
"If you're a foodie, a hotel guy who's been in the business a long time, and you take them into the kitchen over there at Bern's, and you see 100 people hustling and bustling and you take them into that wine cellar, those guys are going to get an appreciation for that," Collier said.
They also had an appreciation for the traffic generated by the restaurant, which serves as many as 600 customers at night, half of whom come from outside Tampa.
"We started telling them how we were going to take all of that story and interconnect it into this hotel," he said. "They totally got that. They could see someone dining at Bern's or having a drink and then going across the street to stay at the hotel."
Marriott agreed to provide the worldwide hotel reservations system and the networking power and visitor perks associated with being a part of the Autograph group. Laxer provided the land and the parking garage. Mainsail signed on to build and operate the hotel. All three entities would collaborate on concept, architecture and interior design aspects.
Marriott, for example, pushed the local partners to theme the hotel as heavily toward food and wine as possible. Yet the Marriott footprint will be all but invisible. That's by design.
"You'll never see the name Marriott on this thing," Collier said. "You get their reservation system and their points and rewards program, but we're selling a product that isn't cookie-cutter Marriott.
"We get the horsepower of the Marriott name," he said. "The banks like that. The investors like that. You have their brand power but not the actual brand name with it."
Interior designs are being done by the Chicago-based firm Gettys and are still in the sketch phase. Early renderings, for example, call for use of cork flooring in some areas to symbolize wine corks.
In addition to the Epicurean, Gettys has designed interiors for the Shangri-La Hotel in Beihai, China; the Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort in United Arab Emirates; and, closer to home, the Westin Coral Gables in Miami and the Marriott Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa in Fort Myers.
During the past five months, Marriott has urged that the Epicurean be pedestrian friendly as a gathering spot for the neighborhood and to connect guests to nearby amenities, such as Bayshore Boulevard, Hyde Park Village and Howard Avenue's nightlife.
"We want to be the anchor on the southern end of Howard Avenue," Collier said.
To pay for construction, Laxer and Mainsail obtained a loan from Synovus Bank, a regional subsidiary of Synovus, a financial services company based in Columbus, Ga. Five local private investors also will fund part of the project. Laxer and Mainsail are co-signers on the loan.
As much as 10 percent of the project's $33 million price tag will be paid through a federal loan program administered by U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security that oversees immigration to the United States.
In 1990, Congress created the agency's Immigrant Investor Program, also known as EB-5. The goal was to stimulate the nation's economy by allowing foreign investors to obtain citizenship visas through capital investment in manufacturing and service industries in the U.S.
Upon completion, the Epicurean project would receive $500,000 for every 10 permanent jobs it creates. Plans call for the hotel to employ about 100 people. Until that money is reimbursed, Tampa-based private capital lender Lindell Capital will provide a "mezzanine loan" to cover costs.
The goal is to be open in time for Thanksgiving 2013, in order to take advantage of the holiday and winter tourist seasons.
"I think people will be amazed at how all of it fits in one site, maximizes the space and fits in with the neighborhood," Collier said.
"There will be nothing like it in this market," he said. "It will be like those buildings they build on a postage stamp in New York City. You can't just build a box and hope people show up."