The founders of the wildly popular PDQ chicken sandwich chain are starting a new line of restaurants with a name that might turn heads pretty darn quickly.
Officially, the new restaurant chain will be called Wow! That's Fresh. Burgers, Salads and Pizza, though executives with the company give a wink and admit that many people will shorten all that to just the text message expletive “WTF.”
Whatever people end up calling it, construction on the first location begins this week at 1426 W. Brandon Blvd., with a planned opening about 120 days later, and then other locations soon afterward.
“Maybe we'll have signs in front of the construction site that say things like 'What's The Fuss,'” said Nick Reader, who is starting the new restaurant group along with his PDQ co-founder, Bob Basham, who was also an original Outback Steakhouse founder. “We're trying to have a little fun with it.”
Behind the scenes, the project is all business. For months, PDQ executives have been quietly testing new burgers, pizzas and salads at a location in the company's Tampa headquarters that doubles as an employee cafeteria and restaurant for nearby office dwellers.
Customers of WTF will notice a slew of similarities with the fast-growing PDQ chain. The overall concept is “fast-casual,” meaning people will order up front at a cashier like a Panera Bread, then pick up their food and gather their own drinks — yet the food quality is aimed several pegs above “fast food.” Compared to PDQ, there will be a bit more variety.
Burgers will come in several varieties (plain, cheeseburger and bacon cheeseburger) and, like Five Guys, will be cooked fresh on-site. Salads will come in a few varieties: taco salad, tuna salad and a “deconstructed” cheeseburger with bleu cheese. Perhaps representing more of an indulgence, there's a pepperoni and bacon Caesar salad. Pizzas will come in a few varieties and be cooked on-site. Add to that an Angus hot dog, kids menu, shakes and cookies.
Like PDQ, there will be a drive-thru lane, a Coca- Cola “Freestyle” machine to make any number of 100-plus soda varieties, and like PDQ, there will be a short wash basin for kids to clean up before their meal. Likely, combo meals will cost about $7 for an entree item, drink and side.
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Playing with names is a core part of the PDQ culture, as executives with PDQ will often wink and say that really stands for “People Dedicated to Quality.”
As for WTF, ever more unusual names are part of a powerful trend in consumer culture.
“You know, I think it's catchy because that phrase WTF is not as edgy as maybe it was in the past,” said Jeremy Gomez, a notable local chef and owner of Generation Food Truck, which organizes rallies with food trucks with all sorts of oddball names. Tampa's own “Stinky Bunz” food truck is especially popular, with a name that plays on the fragrant Asian dough wraps.
“With social media, people are abbreviating everything. Even my mom who's 67 years old, even she'd get a laugh out of it, because even older generations are being inundated with WTFs and LOLs and everything else.”
The name of the pop band “LMFAO” is likely more popular than the band's own music, Gomez said. (It stands for “Laugh My [expletive] [expletive] Off.)
Food is a far more interesting subject now, Gomez said, compared to past decades when most restaurants were simply named after their food (i.e. Pizza Hut, Burger King) and restaurants and food makers are embracing if not pushing thresholds. Tampa Bay, after all, is the market that brought the all-female server restaurant Hooters to the world.
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Among the more hip beers lately are “Arrogant Bastard Ale” and most grocery stores stock a wine called “Menage-a-Trois.” Tampa has new restaurants either open or on the way called Chocolate Pi, Epicurean, Angry Chair and The Bourgeois Pig.
“As long as the food is good, people will not care what it's called,” Gomez said. “If they open and people think the food isn't good, the name could bury them.”
And as with many products in consumer culture, the proof will be in how people embrace a product — not its name. When Apple released its first tablet computer, the name “iPad” was roundly criticized, yet the product became one of the most successful in the history of technology.
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As for the food WTF will offer, it's squarely targeted at a specific segment in the market.
“We just love the fast- casual segment,” Reader said. “That's based on a lot of the consumer trends we see. Busy, dual-income families looking for something healthier than traditional fast food.” That also means the restaurant will have the look and feel of a PDQ, with an open kitchen and bright, clean atmosphere.
(For those looking for the first WTF site, the property address in Brandon is changing street numbers from 1414 to 1426 W. Brandon Blvd., due to county administration issues.)
With burgers, WTF will have plenty of company in the “better burger” segment. Besides 17 Five Guys locations within 25 miles of central Tampa, there's a growing list of other brands building new sites in the region, including Burger Monger, Burger 21 and Square 1 Burger. BurgerFi is under construction on South Howard Avenue for its first local site, and the franchisee, Dilip Kanji, plans at least a half dozen locations across the Tampa Bay area in the next few years.
Even Starbucks is getting into the better burger segment by adding burgers to the menu at select locations of the recently acquired La Boulange bakery chain.
Add to this several other major chains are expanding nationally, including In-N-Out, Smashburger, The Habit Burger Grill, Whataburger and Tampa's own Checkers Drive-In Restaurants.
Burgers are also a pet project by gourmet chefs at local foodie restaurants. The Elevage restaurant at the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa has a “Duck, Duck, Goose” duck-meat burger, stuffed with foie gras & goose confit, served with black currant ketchup.
Like PDQ and Outback before it, the WTF chain will be built by bringing in owner-operators who essentially buy a franchise and also own a stake in the performance of that location, a model that Basham and others used to great effect in expanding Outback into a national brand name.
Meanwhile, PDQ is expanding rapidly, with almost 30 locations from Florida to North Carolina, and more locations opening up almost every other week.