New eateries expand menu along U.S. 41 East

East Naples residents hankering for a plate of pasta, a stack of pancakes or a specialized "Belly Buster" burger, with a pint of Guinness on the side, will have a much shorter commute to get their cuisine of choice.

National chain restaurants such as Carrabba's Italian Grill and International House of Pancakes, better known as IHOP, recently set up shop along U.S. 41 east. Two other newcomers, the Bonita Springs-based Fitzgerald's Pub and Sonic Drive-In, a national fast food chain, will also make their way into the burgeoning East Naples community soon.

Portions of East Naples, from just south of downtown Naples to the intersection of Collier Boulevard and U.S. 41 East, have undergone major transitions during the past few years. Vacant, tree-covered lands have been cleared to make way for development, and once-dilapidated shopping plazas and stores have been bought out and revitalized as new businesses.

Community leaders believe the recent invasion of restaurants means people are taking a second look at East Naples.

"It's an indicator, if businesses are willing to locate to an area, that it is improving," said David Jackson, executive director of the Bayshore/Gateway Triangle Community Redevelopment Agency, a group dedicated to improving formerly blighted neighborhoods in northeast Naples.

"People are willing to invest money and locate in this area. If they're coming here, it shows we are coming back."

Server Christine Mauk, right, pulls a tray full of food to take to diners Thursday night at Carrabba's Italian Grill in East Naples on U.S. 41. The restaurant recently opened and is one of a handful of new businesses to enter the East Naples area.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

Server Christine Mauk, right, pulls a tray full of food to take to diners Thursday night at Carrabba's Italian Grill in East Naples on U.S. 41. The restaurant recently opened and is one of a handful of new businesses to enter the East Naples area.

On the corner of Collier Boulevard and U.S. 41 East, Carrabba's owners are basking in the success of their East Naples expansion, which opened on June 12.

"It's going very well," said co-owner Manny Vegas, who also owns the North Naples Carrabba's. "I think people have needs, and the mid-scale environment we offer is valuable to people."

Vegas said he chose East Naples in order to attract Marco Islanders, who typically have to drive 20 or more miles to dine at a chain restaurant. Vegas also complimented the area's growth and said he was eager to be part of the improved East Naples community.

IHOP owners opened the doors at their newest restaurant, at Davis Boulevard and U.S. 41 East, Wednesday morning. The site irritated residents and nearby business owners as a shabby, abandoned Village Inn for several years. But community leaders said the shiny new eatery is a welcome sight.

"We're often able to find success where others have failed," said Patrick Lenow, spokesman for the IHOP corporation. "We see that neighborhoods do evolve over time, and we recognize those changes early on and go in there."

Officials at Sonic liked what they saw in East Naples, too. The new drive-in restaurant chose the area as its southernmost spot in the country. The closest Sonic to Collier County now is in Tampa.

Megan McKenzie, spokeswoman for the Sonic corporation, said the company hopes to begin construction this summer on the site of a deteriorated Mobil gas station, whose destruction was cheered by residents and community leaders last year.

McKenzie said the new fast-food joint should open by the end of the year.

Like officials at IHOP and Carrabba's, Mick Fitzgerald, co- owner of Fitzgerald's in Bonita Springs, said he decided to move to East Naples because it is an area on the rise.

Fitzgerald plans to open 10 new Irish pubs within a couple of years to expand on his only location, in Bonita Springs. The East Naples version of the popular Lee County pub, which features the Belly Buster burger, along with Irish cuisine, will be the first to open, Fitzgerald hopes by Oct. 1, on the site of a vacated Shoney's restaurant on U.S. 41 East, near Rattlesnake Hammock Road, he said.

Kaye Ulberg, right, her husband Carl, and other patrons dine at Carrabba's Italian Grill on Thursday night in East Naples.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

Kaye Ulberg, right, her husband Carl, and other patrons dine at Carrabba's Italian Grill on Thursday night in East Naples.

"We've been doing our homework, and I just think it's a growing area," Fitzgerald said. "Naples can't extend any farther north, and people in (East Naples) deserve a good local pub."

Unfortunately, some owners lament, not everything is sliding into place for new restaurant staff members.

Many will find themselves facing a predicament familiar to their predecessors: how to retain staff members who cannot afford the high cost of living in Collier County.

Although he does struggle to maintain employees, Fitzgerald said his offerings of health insurance and retirement plans help attract a high-quality wait staff.

"Our staff is at a high turnover rate, because of the cost of living," Fitzgerald said. "But when we employ them, we do our best to work with them to get the proper schedules, so they can make money in both the off and on seasons."

Although IHOP and Fitzgerald's are opening their new offerings at previously failed locations, officials for both restaurants said they are not concerned with the ghosts of the past.

Incoming restaurants will take their cue from recent success stories, such as KJs Tropical Palm Cafe, on U.S. 41 East, near Palm Drive, and Patric's Restaurant, on Davis Boulevard, near Shadowlawn Drive. Both eateries have enjoyed great success since opening last year, representatives said.

"We're very happy with this, and it's been very well-received," said Patric Achilles, owner of Patric's, an upscale, continental-style restaurant.

Achilles said Collier residents have enjoyed his East Naples location, because it allows them to get the quality food available in downtown Naples without battling the nightlife traffic.

"Knowing that there was a big growth going on in this area, it was pretty much a no-brainer to come here," he said. "Downtown Naples is pretty much overrun with restaurants, and North Naples is, too.

"I believe if you've got something good, people will come to you."

Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala, whose district includes East Naples, said she hopes the recent restaurant rush is just the beginning for the evolving area. Fiala said she hopes other chain restaurants, such as Applebee's and Outback Steakhouse, will someday call East Naples home.

"This area is finally getting the recognition we've been waiting for," Fiala said. "Restaurateurs finally realized that people in East Naples like to eat.

"It's about time."

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