A true “speciality restaurant,” Primo offers Italian food and help to local farmers.

ORLANDO — Whenever Gilberto Ramirez gets ready to start cooking dinner, all he has to do is reach into his organic garden.
“We grow a lot of things in our garden,” Ramirez said. “Basically, it’s to help out the planet.”
The environmentally-conscious chef isn’t talking about the cooking he does at his home. The organic garden is located at the place where Ramirez works as the Chef de Cuisine, or chef in charge: Primo, by Melissa Kelly, the restaurant inside the JW Marriot Orlando hotel in the Grand Lakes resort off John Young and the Central Florida Parkway. Their mission: upscale dining in a restaurant that serves Mediterranean food with, as Ramirez noted, “a heavy Italian influence.”
The restaurant emphasizes fresh local ingredients such as citrus and seafood, along with vegetables and herbs grown on-site in that organic garden.
“We’re supporting our local farmers, with local ingrediences and local produce,” Ramirez said.
Primo opened its doors around the same time that the JW Marriott did a few years ago, and Ramirez has also been there from the beginning.
“I started out, actually, as Cook 3 — which is a starting cook,” he said. “I moved my way up to Cook 2, Cook 1, and then supervisor.” Then he completed his climb up the ladder when he became the chef in charge of planning their menu.
“Our signature dish is Pork Sulta Malta,” he said. “It’s two very thin medallions of pork with roasted garlic and mashed potatoes. That’s probably the biggest seller there is.”
What’s the key to making a dish like that?
“The key to it is respect the food and take care of the ingredients,” he said. “And make it with love.”
Primo offers indoor and outdoor seating, for dinner only. The doors open at 6 p.m. and close at 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Their success has been impressive at a time when consumers are very selective about how they spend their money.
Central Florida’s economy went into a painful tailspin in 2008 as the once-booming housing market crashed, and the local unemployment rate soared to double digits.
The hospitality and tourism industries didn’t get spared the turmoil, and took a major hit as well in 2009.
But so far this year, the industry appears to be on a rebound and getting stronger. Hotel occupancies are up, the theme parks are reporting improved attendance numbers, and even a high end restaurant like Primo is doing solid business — an encouraging sign at a time when consumer spending remains so tight.
“Right now it’s a little busy,” Ramirez said. “We get on average about 150 people a night. We can do 237.”
He expects those numbers to improve in May, with both Mother’s Day and the Memorial Day Weekend coming up.
“Mother’s Day is pretty big for us,” he said.
Part of their appeal, he added, is giving the guests an experience they’re likely to remember — both in terms of the quality of food served and the service provided from the moment they walk in the door.
“They start coming in at 6 o’clock, and the first person they see is the hostess,” Ramirez said. Having made reservations in advance — highly recommended at Primo — “We try to greet them by name,” he said. “Then we walk them to their table and the server will tell them about how we operate, and our philosophy, how we’re supporting our local community. That’s our biggest goal.”
And, of course, they encourage guests to stay long enough to sample Primo’s dessert menu, he added.
“We have a lot of great desserts,” he said. And if they want to top it off with a drink, “We do have a lot of different wines, great Italian wines.”
These days, Ramirez said, Primo is trying to develop its own identity, separate from the hotel that it’s a part of.
“The biggest challenge we have is we are in a great hotel, but some of our local residents don’t know we’re here,” he said. “But we do get some locals who say, ‘Boy, we never knew you existed before’ once they find out about us. We’re a specialty restaurant.”
Primo is at 4040 Central Florida Parkway in Orlando. For reservations at Primo, call 407-393-4444. For reservations at the JW Marriott, call 407-206-2300.
To learn more, log on to http://www.grandelakes.com/Primo-78.html.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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 www.FlemingsSteakhouse.com.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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 chefsgala@hfuw.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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