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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
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Epicurean backers already look beyond Tampa

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As chefs, bellhops and hotel desk clerks busily prepare to open the Epicurean hotel in Tampa on Wednesday, here’s a message to other U.S. cities: One may be coming your way soon.

Backers of the foodie-focused boutique property are not only hoping to expand to several other markets — soon — they’re actively scouting sites and have a green light from their investors to go forward on the next few locations.

“We want to get this hotel in Tampa right, and open it properly, and be able to show this off as a banner for others,” said Joe Collier, president of Mainsail Lodging & Development, which is cooperating on the Epicurean project with Marriott and the owners of Bern’s Steak House across Howard Avenue. “Our goal is to have five more in five years.”

They likely won’t be called “Epicurean” or be linked to Bern’s, and there’s no set criteria for what U.S. city Collier is targeting next. However, there are some key questions in picking a site.

First, which markets Collier is able to tap that don’t have a conflict with other Marriott properties, since he’s building the Epicurean and other hotels under the Marriott sub-brand of “Autograph.”

Second, if that market will support a quirky, creative, boutique hotel with profitable prices for rooms, restaurants, spas and other high-end amenities. The Epicurean will charge $179 to $299 per night for rooms and $299 to $449 for suites.

Third, finding the right physical site. Collier’s not ruling out suburban sites, but he’s more apt to look at an urban “in-fill” location, or an adaptive re-use of an existing building with character. Something that can support 130 to 150 rooms for affluent locals and travelers.

Beyond that, Collier is open to all sorts of creative projects, particularly because a key part of his general hotel model is a large event/theater space. Here in Tampa it’s the Epicurean “Culinary Classroom” that’s a kind of entertainment and food cooking theater. But perhaps in another area known for its wine (Napa Valley), that space could be for wine events. Or a town known for music (Nashville) or entertainment (Los Angeles) or fashion (New York) could have an event/classroom space tailored to that.

In the meantime, Collier is taking stock of what lessons they have learned so far in Tampa.

Among the most important is the trickiness of building a very customized hotel that guests will find more authentic than a cookie-cutter property. If Collier wanted to build a “normal” hotel, he could sit with a contractor, flip through catalogs and pick everything from lights and shower stalls to doors. But the Epicurean has loads of custom work. For instance, each bathroom has a sliding “barn door” made from rustic wood. That meant contractors had to make custom door hardware and sliding rails, and figure out the best way to attach them to the walls. The entire hotel kitchen was custom made to specifications of the chefs on site.

From breaking ground here to opening day will be 14 months. “That’s pretty tight,” he said. “No matter how much padding you think you have in your schedule, with many custom items you just don’t know the lead times. You need to be careful not to put too much pressure on yourself at the end.”

Such major projects don’t happen easily, and not every hotel project works out perfectly. The Scrub Island Resort that Collier helped build in the British Virgin Islands is going through a bankruptcy restructuring. That likely won’t affect the Epicurean or other projects, according to investors in the Epicurean, but the situation at Scrub Island does illustrate how fickle the marketplace can be.

Still, all that custom work in a boutique hotel is one reason the top executives at Marriott have signed off on him opening more. Modern travelers, especially millennials, are looking for interesting experiences at their hotels — not just a place to sleep. Just as importantly, Collier said he has a green light from his financial backers. With those two factors in his favor, he can focus on opening up the Epicurean now, and scouting sites nationwide.

In the meantime, the Epicurean in Tampa looks to be on track for a splashy launch. The most important construction work is complete — hot water, beds, TVs, among other things. There’s been brisk business in gift cards that people plan to give out during the holidays that friends and family can use to book a night or use at the restaurant. The hotel is already booking guests who originally called the Bern’s restaurant for dinner, and were parlayed into reservations at the Epicurean. The property is close to sold out for New Year’s, with Gasparilla soon after.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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