Upscale, high end restaurant survives and thrives, despite the economic downturn.

Mark Cline says his restaurant has done well despite the lingering economic weakness.

ORLANDO — It’s not easy to run a high end restaurant in a tough economy, when consumers are cutting back on their discretionary spending.
Mark Cline, though, did something that might be considered brave: he opened a high end restaurant in 2009, at the height of the national recession.
And it worked.
“We opened on July 31 2009,” he said. “The last five months have been very good for us — and there are 130 restaurants on Sand Lake Road.”
That’s where Cline, the operating partner, opened Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar at 8030 Via Dellagio Way in Orlando.
It’s the kind of place where guests can expect to get USDA prime beef, of course — and quite a bit more.
“We have fresh seafood, innovative sides, salads and house made desserts,” Cline said. “We have a Chocolate Lava, a souffle that is baked to order. If you like chocolate and you haven’t had it, it is to die for, and it’s made without flour.”
When Florida’s housing market crashed in 2007, it brought down with it a whole host of once-thriving industries, including construction. Florida’s unemployment rated soared to double digits, and the state got the unwelcome designation of having one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation. The tourism industry wasn’t spared the hit, either.
But Cline’s success demonstrates that Central Florida remains a magnet for tourists, business travelelers, time share vacationers and others who can’t resist the appeal of a vacation in a state where winter often arrives in weaks, not months. Cline said the real key is top flight customer service.
“I train all my associates,” he said. “I train them that the guest is always right. Let’s make them happy before they leave. The worst thing to do is you leave a restaurant hungry, because you know they won’t come back.”
Instead, Cline said his focus has always been to ensure his customers not only enjoy their visit to his restaurant, but are quick to spread the word to others about how much they enjoyed it. This comes from 27 years in the industry, he added.
“We are a contemorary, casual steakhouse,” he said. “The first experience you get is we greet you at the door, and the host will print out your name and any special occasions you’re celebrating. If you have a favorite martini, for example, we can type that all in there. We take a picture of you and put it in a Fleminng’s frame. I think it’s really over the top. We provide it all. Like I said, we let the guest have a memorable experience.”
Fleming’s has done well even as Florida’s rocky economy continues to look for ways to improve and begin generating more jobs. Cline noted that a big hit has been the restaurant’s daily happy hour.
“We have a great happy hour seven days a week,” Cline said. “It’s from 5 to 7 (p.m.), and you can get five cocktails, five wines or five appetizers for $6 each. It’s our ‘Five for $6 until 7’ deal.”
It’s a deal that packs in the crowds, he added.
“You can’t move in my restaurant seven days a week,” he said. “The crowd flows into my dining area.”
The restaurant is also not picky about what people want to wear, despite appealing to a high end crowd.
“You can wear Florida casual, as long as you’re not in a bathing suite,” Cline said. “You can be dressy if you want.”
Cline said his restaurant has benefitted from being close to International Drive and all the business travelers that flock to the hotels and the Orange County Convention Center, and Central Florida’s improving tourism numbers.
“I market to all the hotels,” he said.
At the same time, he’s trying to get the word out to locals who may not be aware that Fleming’s exists.
“We have a Friends of Fleming’s campaign where you’ll get two emails a month,” he said. “We run huge incentives. For every $500 you spend, you get a $50 certificate, and your guests get $25 certificates.”
All of this has helped his restaurant not only keep its doors open, but to thrive in tough economic times — no small accomplishment and a lesson for others looking at getting into this competitive field.
“Our principals and beliefs,” he said, “are respect and hospitality. I like what I do.”
To learn more about Fleming’s, call 407-352-5706 or log on to

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Have you got extravagant taste in food? The 2011 Chef’s Gala may be just the ticket you’re looking for.

The Primo Restaurant hosted the media advance for the 2011 Chef's Gala.

ORLANDO — The menu sounds extravagant, and tough to beat: roasted Venison Lion with celery root puree. Porcini-crusted Filet Mignon. Braised Short Ribs with Truffled Grits. Seared Day Boat Scallop and Lobster Croquette.
The list goes on and on, and includes an item by Primo, the Mediterranean restaurant at the Grand Lakes Resort, which is bringing along Peekeytoe Crab Gougere with a Florida avocado crema and heirloom tomato soup.
If that doesn’t get most people to feel their mouth watering, it might help that Primo’s top Chef de Cuisine, Gilberto Ramirez, was quick to note that “The key to cooking is to respect the food and take care of the ingredients — and make it with love.”
This afternoon, Primo hosted a group of people eager to sample foods that will be on an upcoming menu, prompting Michele Plant to say to the guests, “Feel free to continue eating — and indulging.” Virtually everyone did.
But if it sounds like an event reserved only for those with the heftiest bank accounts and thickest wallets, it’s actually a cause that helps the exact opposite: those most desperately in need of assistance.
“The money raised from this event goes to critical programs that fund shelters for children who have suffered abuse and people who are losing their homes,” said Carolyn Gosselin, president of Gosselin Inc.
Along with John Tomlinson, senior vice president and Florida manager of Wells Fargo Bank, Gosselin is co-chairing the 2011 Chef’s Gala, billed as “A tasteful way to make a difference.”
The event will be held on Saturday, May 21 from 6:45-10 p.m. at Epcot World Showcase, and the money raised from it benefits health and human service programs supported by Heart of Florida United Way that provide food, shelter and other services to Central Floridians in dire need.
Recognized as the region’s premier food and wine pairing charitable event, Chef’s Gala will feature meals from more than 20 of Central Florida’s top chefs and dining establishments, along with live music and a silent auction. Individual tickets start at $225 each, couple’s packages go for $400 each, and there are corporate packages with 10 tickets for $2,000.
Today the United Way held a media preview of the event, inviting in members of the press to sample some of the meals that will be served at Chef Gala, and — the organizers hope — help promote it.
“We really couldn’t do this event without the support of the media,” said Jill Hamilton, vice president of marketing and communications for Heart of Florida United Way.
“I want to say how critical the Chef’s Gala is to the United Way’s mission,” she added. “People are saying things are starting to get better. Well, we are not seeing that at United Way.”
The agency is averaging 18,000 calls a month from people in need of food and shelter, who fear losing their homes, or who have already lost everything and have nowhere else to turn, she said.
“Last month, the number one request was for housing assistance, so it still really is tough,” Hamilton said.
Gosselin said the organizers decided to reach out to the media because an agency like United Way puts its money into helping others, not public relations.
“It is so critically important to have media coverage of this event,” she said. “United Way does not spend a dime on advertising.”
It’s also a winning combination of a great event and an ideal way to help people, Gosselin added.
“I love the United Way,” she said. “I was really excited to be able to do it.”
The media preview was held at Primo, which brought together some of the chefs who will be cooking for those attending Chef’s Gala.
“This is a cool event. This is fun,” Tomlinson said. “It’s just a wonderful event, and you meet some great people. There are 24 chefs who go to this event. Most of them bring wine. There’s live music. There’s champagne.”
And for business owners, he added, “There’s also a great opportunity to give your clients something to do.”
Tomlinson noted that in 2010, the Chef’s Gala brought in $170,000 for United Way. This year, the co-chairs hope to top that amount.
“Ninety-five to 99 percent of this money goes directly to the community,” he said.
Plant, director of marketing and communications for United Way, said she hopes members of the press let the public know what they can expect if they buy tickets for the 2011 Chef’s Gala.
“I hope you enjoy,” she said. “This is a little taste of what to expect on the night of the gala.”
To buy tickets for the Chef’s Gala, call 407-429-2129, log on to www.chefsgala or email

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Dexter’s remains a local favorite, and for very good reasons.

ORLANDO – Do you know what a Dirty Dexter is?

If you’re thinking of the creepy guy who drinks too much at this wine bar and then hits on far too many unsuspecting women, not quite. I’m not saying that’s never happened, although my own experience is that the crowd at Dexter’s is a lot like the staff: relaxed, friendly, just having a good time.

No, the Dirty Dexter is three ounces of chilled Ketel One vodka mixed with olive juice and served with cheese-stuffed olives, available for thirsty patrons for $10 each. It might, I think, make a nice companion piece to the Screwy Grapetine, which for $8 gives you grape vodka with Florida orange juice.  If you’re not perfectly happy after these two, you might want to check your pulse on the way out the door.

Great locations can help just about any wine bar, but if you happened to open your doors in Thornton Park, you’ve got a superb head start over the competition. One of Orlando’s truly great “Hey, come on out and walk and window shop” neighborhoods, Thornton Park is always going to seem inviting the minute your car begins searching for the sometimes elusive parking spots (it is a popular location, after all.)

But Dexter’s is one of the great additions to this sublime neighborhood. It’s got the wine bar, it’s got a funky menu, it’s got artwork for sale on the walls. The music is upbeat oldies, the mood is always festive. How do you get in and out the door feeling depressed when Dexter’s seems guaranteed to life your spirits?

And have you ever gone there on New Year’s Eve? Hey, start popping the champagne the second you walk in.

Located at 808 E. Washington St., Dexter’s has a cozy outside seating area, but if you opt to go inside, you’re likely to be impressed by the massive U-shaped bar that has enough chairs lined around itto accommodate the neighborhood football team, and more than enough liquor inside the bar to satisfy both the players and their fans.

Private tables are lined all around the bar, with two spacious booths in the back of the room. There are television screens in the middle of the bar, although the radio mostly drowns them out with a parade of 60s and 70s oldies. Along the wall are paintings or photographs for sale – right now, the fine talent of photographer Mike Bass is available to view and own in nicely framed works like “Café Havana” (available for $100.)

Try one of Dexter's fine salads for a healthy fit lunch meal.

Now, if you’re there to drink, keep some things in mind. Dexter’s has a generous Happy Hour on a daily basis – Mondays from 3 p.m. until closing, and Tuesdays through Fridays from 3-7 p.m.

Thursday is Ladies Night – that means $2 off everything for the ladies from 7 p.m. until the bar closes.

In addition, you’ve got Saturday and Sunday Brunch that tempt you with $2.95 Mimosas and $4.50 Bloody Marys. If you need a reason to relax and celebrate the sheer joy of life, Dexter’s has your ticket. 

Dexter's is a great place to relax and unwind over a good drink -- like The Dirty Dexter.

It’s not just a place for a fine glass of wine or, if you’re the designated driver, one of Dexter’s Raspberry Tea, Luzianne Fresh Brew (unlimited refills for just $1.50), or San Pellegrino waters. There’s the meals that have made Dexter’s a favorite lunch spot for years.

Did you know Tuesdays are $1 Burger Nite at Dexter’s?  Nice, although when I sampled their Bangers and Mash plate recently, I was more than happy to pay the higher price of $9 for this excellent dish made up of two pieces of sausage dipped in mashed potatoes and gravy – a tasty import from our friends in Britain, very well cooked by the Dexter’s staff.  (Is it any coincidence that I was listening to the Moody Blues when the waiter served my plate? Long live the British.) You have plenty of other fine meals to pick from – sandwiches, soups, salads, pasta dishes, even Dexter’s Famous Grilled Colby Cheeseburger, which offers you an eight ounce fresh ground burger topped with melted Colby cheese on a grilled Kaiser roll, and even a good helping of Idaho fries tossed into the mix. At $8.95, that’s a bargain.

Whenever I go to Dexter’s for lunch, I make it a habit to get there by 11:30 a.m., before the lunch crowd starts moving in. By the time I leave, the place is usually packed.

My fellow lunch patrons have excellent taste. Dexter’s is a favorite spot in a popular neighborhood for a good reason: they do what they do so very, very well.

Dexter’s also has wine bars in Winter Park at 558 W. New England Ave. and in Lake Mary at 950 Market Promenade Ave., Suite 1201. To learn more, call 407-648-2777 or log on to

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