Is downtown Lakeland ready for high-end destination dining? A global businessman and aspiring restaurateur, with a $4 million investment, says yes.
Brazilian entrepreneur and onetime Tampa area executive Marco Franca is an international business development expert who also loves a good meal.
So when he and his wife, Grace, moved to Lakeland two years ago, it was quickly apparent his appetite for a meal like “back home” wasn't going to be satisfied in Polk County. The couple eventually began to trek to Orlando or Tampa three or four times a week for dinner. Franca figured if they were going far for quality cuisine, others were, too.
Sensing a business opportunity, Franca recently branched out from mergers and acquisitions to a new venture: an upscale Brazilian-style restaurant. The name is Posto 9, and Franca says it should be open by December. The restaurant will include the first rooftop lounge in Lakeland, with views of both downtown and the Lake Mirror Promenade.
“Every month, Polk County residents spend $30 million eating out in surrounding counties,” Franca says, citing an extensive study he commissioned for the project. “Let's change the rules of the game. If we can capture just part of the resources leaving the city, we'll be successful.”
Posto 9 is also a significant commercial real estate commitment to downtown Lakeland. It will be housed in a 14,000-square-foot historic building on Main Street at Munn Park. Franca plans to spend at least $3.5 million in interior and exterior renovations, in addition to equipment.
Renderings of the projected inside and outside for Posto 9. Courtesy.
Work has already begun. The project includes turning the building into a swanky hot spot, with exposed brick, wood and stone. The first floor, says Franca, will have a dining area and lounge, the second floor will be an events area and the third floor rooftop lounge will have a Brazilian shores vibe.
The restaurant, named after a spot on Rio de Janeiro Beach, will seat up to 500 people in total. Franca spent $525,000 to buy the building.
Franca worked with area business coach Dick Pellegrini and Larry Ross, a business professor at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, on the Posto 9 business plan. The team concludes downtown Lakeland is ready for an upscale, non-chain, trendy restaurant for several reasons: Lack of competitors in the immediate area; favorable micro demographics; growth of the Brazilian population in Central Florida; increase in people and buzz in downtown Lakeland; and the first-of-its-kind rooftop lounge. Ross adds an ally in the process is Lakeland's low costs, which helps on expenses in areas such as construction, labor insurance and utilities.
“The city sits in the middle of approximately 8 million citizens, many of whom are looking for unique dining experiences,” Ross says. “There are many examples historically of this type of success outside of major metro markets.”
The restaurant will have 65 employees, and Franca expects to begin hiring in November. The menu, which will change biweekly, will feature farm-to-table seasonal foods focused on modern Brazilian cooking techniques and dishes, says Franca.
Franca is new to hospitality, but not to business. An Ohio State grad, he worked for mortgage banking firm Walter Co. in Tampa for 16 years, in strategic planning and market research. Franca then worked for 20 years in Brazil after he left Walter.
Franca realizes the restaurant business is littered with high-hopes-turned-failures, but he's confident Posto 9 will last. Ross agrees, saying the charm of a restored historic building, a unique menu and high-end service are all part of a successful destination dining operation. “There are no guarantees in the restaurant business, but you can mitigate the risk of failure by doing your homework,” says Ross. “I believe Marco has done just that.”