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Sarasota Ford opens multimillion-dollar restaurant inside the dealership

With both big goals and customer loyalty top of mind, an auto sales entrepreneur drives forward with an industry-first concept.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. December 5, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
The menu at Le Mans Kitchen has a French accent.
The menu at Le Mans Kitchen has a French accent.
Courtesy image
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Michelin Star recipient and world-renowned chef Jose Martinez didn’t mince words when Matt Buchanan, president and managing partner of Sarasota Ford, came to him with a big and bold idea. Buchanan knew Martinez a little, having dined at the chef’s noted Maison Blanche on Longboat Key with his wife, Diana Buchanan, on big occasions.     

Buchanan’s plan: create and open a high-end, French-accented restaurant inside the Ford dealership, open only to customers. “I told him this was a crazy idea,” says Martinez, “but that I am up for the challenge.” 

Buchanan, Martinez and a third business partner in the project, area restaurant consultant Tommy Klauber, took on the challenge. The result is Le Mans Kitchen.

It’s a first of its kind restaurant, a 3,367-square-foot, 38-seat private eatery inside Sarasota Ford. Le Mans Kitchen is in the front end of the dealership, which faces Washington Boulevard in a high-traffic area just south of Main Street in downtown Sarasota. No other Ford dealership Buchanan knows of has done anything like this. Ditto for any dealership under any other brands. The restaurant has six employees dedicated only to it, part of a 220-employee Sarasota Ford payroll. 

Le Mans Kitchen, which opens Dec. 11, will be available to Sarasota Ford buyers and their guests, as well as Sarasota Ford automotive service customers. People who purchase or own a Sarasota Ford vehicle will be able to visit anytime and will receive a meal and drink voucher for their first visit. Sarasota Ford automotive service customers will receive a meal and drink voucher valid only for the day of their service.

Le Mans Kitchen will be open on weekends starting in 2024.
Courtesy image

In a pre-opening tour and tasting, the trio of leaders behind Le Mans Kitchen talked about both the high-end menu and Ritz-Carlton-like service. On the latter, it’s literal: the chief experience officer at Sarasota Ford, who will help oversee Le Mans, is Mirza Velic, a former lounge and food and beverage supervisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Buchanan met Velic there and thought so highly of his customer service skills that he wooed him to a position at Sarasota Ford in 2017, first as director of quality assurance. 

Menu items, meanwhile, include Le Mans signature pillow pancakes; crème brûlée French toast; house ground prime burgers; heirloom caprese toast; carefully curated mocktails; milkshakes with a gelato base; and made-to-order coffee, with beans ground per cup. (For obvious reasons, there is no alcohol.) “This is not where you’re going to get coffee and donuts,” says Klauber, citing typical auto dealership fare. 

“We don’t want you to feel like you’re in a dealership,” adds Buchanan. “You should feel like you were taken away to another world when you are here.”

The project to get Le Mans Kitchen ready for its grand opening took nine months and a multimillion-dollar investment. It replaces the dealership’s former cafe, which was 1,275 square feet. (Other dealership offerings for customers include a 11-seat movie theater and a relaxation room with hydro massage chairs.)

Le Mans Kitchen has 38 seats.
Courtesy image

The Ford F-450 Super Duty-sized question: Why do this? Sarasota Ford, the flagship of three entities under Buchanan Automotive Group, is already one of the largest in the Southeast. The dealership sells about 450 vehicles a month, says Buchanan. Other dealerships in the company include Space Coast Honda in Cocoa and Nissan of Elizabeth City in North Carolina. The company’s history goes back to the early 1990s and Buchanan’s father, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, when he bought a Honda and Acura dealership in Ocala. (Vern Buchanan no longer has an ownership stake in the company.)

But with Sarasota Ford sales humming, even amid the auto industry’s multiple challenges — chip supply shortages and inflation, to name just two — why take on this expensive and mostly non-revenue generating project? 

Matt Buchanan sums up his why in one word: Loyalty.  

He seeks to create an atmosphere where people crave coming into Sarasota Ford. Not just for a new car or a truck or a mundane service appointment, but with something like Le Mans Kitchen, going to the dealership becomes a top-of-mind destination. Something to boast about to friends and family. The service department will work on any brand of car, not just Fords, as well. “Growing customer loyalty is everything,” Buchanan says. 

One other objective, secondary to customer loyalty, yet still a big deal: to obtain Michelin Star status. A Michelin star for a restaurant is a sought-after industry gold star of top of the top in food and service. “There’s never been a place where you can say they not only serve Michelin star food,” Buchanan says, “but they can also service and sell Michelin tires.”

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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