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Carmel Cafe gets extensive makeover

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Published:   |   Updated: August 27, 2013 at 12:09 PM

The paper menus are back at Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar.

Customers at the California-themed restaurant will still use iPads at each table to browse photos of the entrees and desserts, and tap on the iPads to order them. But bringing back a traditional paper menu is part of a subtle but extensive remake of the two-year-old restaurant company started by Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan.

The “small plates” have bigger foods, and the menu now has rib-sticking comfort food items like a French Dip steak sandwich. And now there are concrete plans to open up a string of locations in new cities, including Orlando and the Philadelphia area.

“Items are better, heartier and more filling,” said Carmel President and Founding Partner Terry Ryan. “We've done a lot of hard listening to our customers, and made changes.”

That was to be expected, Ryan said, as the Carmel organization began just two years ago with a location in Clearwater and another location in South Tampa that opened a year ago. Back then, the focus was on wine, small plates and everything ordered by the customer by tapping on an iPad that had hundreds of items — most with luscious photos included. Click on a photo of a crabcake appetizer, and servers would whisk it to the table.

Carmel officials normally switch up much of their menu every few months, but this remake recently is more extensive. Managers and chefs spent weeks traveling the country to visit the hottest restaurants in Orlando, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and other places.

From one location, they saw chefs experimenting with gourmet brussel sprouts. “It sounds crazy because people say they don't like brussel sprouts,” Ryan said. “But chefs like Jose Garces have been wrapping them in bacon, and now they sell like crazy.”

Focus group members told Carmel managers they liked the small-plate sandwiches, but wished they were bigger — so now they are. They also said they wanted more salads — so now there are.

Now, when a host takes guests to a table, the host lays out the iPad, but also the large paper menu that lets people see the entire lineup at once, from appetizer to desert. But managers also updated the iPad ordering app with nifty new tricks. There's a new “Call Server” button that pages the waiter or waitress for that table. “I think we've all had that experience,” Ryan said, “of a waiter asking if we need anything, and the second they walk away we remember we needed the ketchup or something else.”

Other changes are as subtle as how servers bring the water. Instead of laying out huge pints full of water, they will bring a set of small glasses and a large glass water bottle. That's to give diners a bit more privacy if they want to be left alone. While the average person at a restaurant might spend 60 minutes at a restaurant table, at Carmel Cafe diners tend to linger, often up to 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, Carmel is going through a very deliberate expansion phase.

They already have locations in Tampa, Carrollwood, Clearwater, Sarasota, and Winter Park. But soon they'll start opening several locations in the wider Philadelphia area, with at least one open by the beginning of January. It's a good market, Ryan said, but more importantly, they found a local operator who both he and Chris Sullivan have worked with for years at different restaurant companies.

That's especially important in the kitchen, he said, as a given Carmel Cafe can have 160 different recipes — in-house made sauces, crab cakes, ribs, and marinades — all of which require exceptional diligence to pull off each day, regardless of what kind of menu that lists them.

rmullins@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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