Opa! for business: The Simple Greek arrives in Tampa

Tony DeSisto is a lawyer by day and a restaurateur … also by day.

“Most days I get here by 8 a.m. to mop the floors,” he said. “Then, once we’re ready to open, I have my laptop to do legal work.”

“Here” is the recently opened The Simple Greek restaurant in Tampa’s Carrollwood district, and DeSisto, a 2009 graduate of Stetson University’s College of Law in Gulfport, is one of the newest franchisees of the chain pioneered by entrepreneur and CNBC personality Marcus Lemonis.

As a parent of five young children, DeSisto is well versed in juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities. What he lacks experience in, however, is the restaurant industry. But that didn’t deter him from hitching his wagon to Lemonis and his dream of a nationwide chain of fast-casual Greek eateries.

“I have a strong background in dealing with leases and employment contracts,” he said. “I like to eat out a lot, and I’ve always been interested in restaurants and how they operate.”

In fairness, DeSisto’s solo law practice is not exactly a full-time job. He has just a handful of clients and bills only about 10 hours a week. He said he’d been looking around for a franchise opportunity in the fast-casual restaurant space when he caught an episode of Lemonis’ CNBC program “The Profit” that would change his life.

“I’m a big fan of his show,” DeSisto said. “When I saw the episode about The Simple Greek, my mind was made up.”

DeSisto hails from Rhode Island and plans to open two Simple Greek locations in the Ocean State, in addition to two more in Tampa. A different franchisee will develop restaurants in the company’s St. Petersburg/Pinellas County territory. Simple Greek restaurants are also appearing in several other Florida markets, including Jacksonville, Orlando, and Pensacola, and the company is seeking applications from additional franchisees in the Sunshine State and beyond.

“Coming from a Greek family, I am particularly excited to expand The Simple Greek dining experience across the country and give our customers convenient access to delicious and healthy food with reasonable prices,” Lemonis said in a news release. “We look forward to meeting customers when we open our doors for the first time in each new city, and to have them sample our wonderful authentic food.”

Brian Curry, marketing director at ML Food Group, The Simple Greek’s parent company, said the Tampa metro area is an ideal market for both an industry newcomer like DeSisto and a restaurant concept that’s attempting to bring a less-established cuisine into the mainstream.

“The biggest thing with Tampa is that there are a lot of pockets of different demographics,” Curry explained. “Because it’s such a new brand and new concept, you want to have that flexibility. Based on our experience with other stores, we have an idea of what the target is, but when you are this new it’s good to have a well-established market like Tampa. Also, we look at our competitors in the fast-casual space and see they’re having success here.”

It looks like The Simple Greek is poised to enjoy its fair share of success, as well. At the restaurant’s grand opening in mid-February, the 10-strong staff was serving up about 400 gyros per hour, Curry said.

Drawing inspiration from a classic

The northern part of Pinellas County, particularly Tarpon Springs, contains a sizeable Greek enclave, and with the Mediterranean country’s cuisine and culture taking center stage in popular culture seems likely to grow. Curry confirmed that Greece’s growing cultural influence was a factor in the aggressive development of the restaurant brand, which has resulted in 27 openings nationwide in just the first year of business.

“We looked to the Greek lifestyle, including movies that have identified what it means to be Greek. It gives us a story to tell and a platform on which to tell it. Greek people are fun and exciting and they love food and providing food to people. And the food is truly simple – clean, not too many ingredients, and that’s the direction in which the industry, as a whole, is heading. The fewer ingredients it takes, the better it is for you.

“We can play off the competition but we are truly unique,” he added. “Sure, there are other Mediterranean concepts out there, but we gave discounts to franchisees because we realized that nobody else is really doing this on the same scale and with the same quality. We have to do some explaining about what makes us different from the late-night gyro stand, but it’s truly a healthy option.”

Curry also offered high praise for DeSisto and the skill set that he brings to The Simple Greek.

“Tony’s very outgoing and a well-established member of the community. He’s working with the local chamber of commerce. He’s been a key member from the beginning when it comes to growing the brand. He’s been able to provide a lot of insight into areas that we can improve on for the next franchisee who comes aboard to open a store in the Tampa Bay region. He’s been very open about what’s working and what’s not working. So we really need and value his input and feedback.”

The Simple Greek is located at 12908 Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.

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