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.
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