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  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:04 a.m. August 10, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Customers at Ugies Smokin' Good Seafood in Palm Harbor are sometimes stunned to learn that the tall, chatty gray-bearded man who clears plates is really the owner.

In fact, that busboy/owner, Dave Ulgenalp, has had a wide-ranging 30-year career in hospitality. His stops include a stint launching franchises for Panera Bread Co. He also ran franchise development at Tampa-based Checkers.

But Ulgenalp says clearing plates off tables is the surest way he knows of to see if his business concept works. It allows him to talk to customers for a post-meal review and get a first-hand account of what works from the menu — and what doesn't. Says Ulgenalp: “It's a great way to see what's going on in the business.”

What's going on with Ugies (pronounced “YOU-gees”) is Ulgenalp, who opened the restaurant in March with his wife, Lisa Ulgenalp, and his college-aged son, Alex Ulgenalp, sees big potential. Ulgenalp and his partners invested $500,000 in the restaurant, on U.S. 19, and he says revenues will likely be around $1 million for the first year.

Moreover, Ulgenalp and his partners hope to have a location for a second store in Brandon picked out by September. A third location could be the Sarasota-Bradenton region, adds Ulgenalp.

The concept at Ugies, an Ulgenalp family nickname, is a combination of comfort food and what Ulgenalp calls coastal cuisine served in a quick-casual style. Menu items include smoked mullet, fish tacos and buffalo chicken mac & cheese, an Ulgenalp original recipe that has become a cult hit.

“We love the quick-casual segment,” Ulgenalp says. “When times are tough it works, and there's almost nobody doing seafood in this segment.”

Dave and Lisa Ulgenalp got into the restaurant industry 30 years ago, when they bought a family-run pizza restaurant in Orlando. They bought two more pizza stores and later moved to Tampa, where Dave Ulgenalp took a position in franchise sales with Checkers.

Ulgenalp later helped Panera Bread, then St. Louis Bread Co., develop a nationwide franchise plan. He liked the plan so much, he bought his own Panera locations, 13 in total, in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. Ulgenalp sold his Panera stores in 2007, and he and his family moved back to the Tampa area.

A Michigan native, Ulgenalp went into semi-retirement. He nearly came out of it buy buying several Dunkin Donuts stores in Detroit, but the deal fell through. That's when he and his wife came up with the idea for Ugies.

With his background, Ulgenalp won't shy away from taking Ugies into franchising. Indeed, the core of the Ugies process is to keep everything simple, so it can be repeated consistently — exactly what a franchise needs. For example, if the Ulgenalps add a menu item, they also take one down. That avoids menu proliferation, Ulgenalp says.

“We're very comfortable and confident that the concept works,” says Ulgenalp. “We're at the point where we know this thing is going to work. We have a national look, but a mom-and-pop feel.”

Several hospitality industry veterans have partnered with Ulgenalp on the original Ugies, and will likely be involved if and when it goes to franchising. The partners include Chris Wolfe, a former multiunit Panera Bread franchisee; Billy Downs, founder of Detroit-based bd's Mongolian Grill; and Matthew Kirby, who owns several restaurants in England.

Ulgenalp, meanwhile, says he's glad to return to the restaurant business after a brief break. Even if that means he's bussing tables. “You can only fish and golf so much,” Ulgenalp says. “I'm actually having a ball.”

Video: Amanda Heisey


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