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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 8, 2017 9 months ago

Law of Attraction

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Four years after acquiring one of downtown Tampa's storied buildings, a pair of lawyers are chasing good-eats aspirations. Are they in for a dream ride or a kitchen nightmare?
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

A law degree can pave the way to many different career paths, but restaurateur isn't the first one that springs to mind.

That hasn't stopped Todd Lax and Kevin Kenny, lawyers who opened 1895 Kitchen-Bar-Market on Aug. 30. In a historic building in downtown Tampa, 510 N. Franklin St., 1895 is a Southern-style eatery that serves a wide range of comfort food inspired by family recipes. It also boasts two bar areas featuring whiskey-based craft cocktails.

Lax and Kenny, whose friendship dates back to their school days at Tampa's Carrollwood Elementary, have been involved in real estate law — particularly hotel and other hospitality industry ventures. That's how they found the building that now houses 1895, as a real estate deal. They tried a juice bar in the space first, but weren't happy with its performance.

The juice bar, says Lax, 45, attracted too narrow of a demographic “to support the space and the size of what we had. And so we wanted to find a way to migrate that into another concept.”

Kenny, also 45, says they were looking for something with “broad, mass appeal” that would bring in the 9-to-5 lunch crowd as well as downtown residents and visitors looking for dinner and nightlife.

Of course, opening a restaurant is where entrepreneurial dreams often go to die. Knowing that, Lax and Kenny, who are keeping their law practices in conjunction with the restaurant, are tackling 1895 with vigor.

The building's location on a bustling block certainly doesn't hurt the lawyers' chances, for starters. Nor does its impressive pedigree. It was built in 1895 as the Easley Building, named for then-Tampa Mayor Robert Easley. It's since housed a railroad ticket office, an upscale shoe store, a silent movie house, the Bank of Tampa, the Business University of Tampa and Adams Jewelry Co. Adams was the building's longest-tenured occupant, in the mid-20th century.

Franklin Partners LLC, Lax and Kenny's real estate development group, acquired the building in 2013 for $425,000. In 2014, the Tampa City Council designated The Franklin a historic local landmark.

History aside, Lax and Kenny saw a need in the city's culinary scene with their plans for 1895.

“Ironically,” says Lax, “Florida being a Southern state, there's very little Southern, or even country-themed bars and restaurants in Tampa. I mean you've got Lee Roy Selmon's; you've got Dallas Bull and Round Up. But there's not a lot, even though there's a large group of folks that appreciate some traditional Southern hospitality. So we tried to come up with a concept that's casual, reasonably priced, fun — a little bit of a mix of all of those.”

Lax and Kenny say they've invested a couple million dollars to acquire the property and launch the restaurant. The top two floors of the building are leased as office space, which provides some additional return on their investment. One of the lessees is Grand Brand, a marketing firm that helped design the 1895 Kitchen-Bar-Market menus.

Lax and Kenny decline to cite specific revenue figures, but say sales doubled from month one to month two — faster growth than expected. “At the same time, that opened up some challenges, staffing wise, to make sure we had the right quality staff,” Kenny says. “So we had to evaluate that and add the right personnel to make sure that we can handle the growth.”

Lax and Kenny don't fancy themselves Gordon Ramsay types who will meddle in the daily operation of the restaurant. They view themselves as property managers and big-item restaurant decision makers, offering guidance on business ideas and brand awareness.

“We wear multiple hats and we're hands-on, but we don't micromanage our folks,” says Lax. “We try putting them in there and letting them have an opportunity to be successful.”

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