14700 Tamiami Trail North, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Like a vine, Naples Tomato wants to spread its roots.
The popular, award-winning restaurant has a plan to grow across the United States.
Wednesday, the owners announced they will sell franchises, allowing them to expand their trademarked “Vine Dining” concept nationally.
“It’s a take-off on fine dining,” said Jack Serfass, the restaurant’s co-owner and co-founder, explaining the concept. “We believe that things don’t have to be expensive and highbrowed to be great.”
Franchises will initially be offered in the eastern U.S. in areas that can be reached by direct flight from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.
“We want to make sure if there is support needed we have people on sight quickly,” Serfass said.
Chicago-based iFranchise Group Inc. helped develop the expansion strategy along with the law firm of Faegre & Benson LLP. Both companies are recognized for their expertise in franchising.
“Vine Dining is a bold new concept that fills a gap in diners’ lifestyles and in the restaurant-franchising industry,” said Mark Siebert, CEO of iFranchise, in a statement.
“Based on my work with hundreds of restaurant concepts in over 30 years in franchise consulting, I believe Naples Tomato is a solid concept with the support of an established organization behind it, and one that is primed to expand.”
The inspiration for Naples Tomato came from the “wonderful village restaurants that are institutions in the Mediterranean lifestyle,” Serfass said. It offers homemade food and an extensive wine list and has a broad appeal, “from young people on first dates to families to people celebrating their 100th birthdays,” he said.
More than 300,000 local residents have dined at the restaurant since it opened nearly five years ago.
In the early years, the eatery struggled to become a mainstay of the local dining scene.
“We did a lot of things wrong,” Serfass recalls. “But one thing we did right was we listened to our guests. I believe that created a loyalty, which we really appreciate.”
The restaurant replaced a food market with a wine lounge, obtaining a full liquor license a few years ago. The owners adopted higher service standards and added space for private events based on demand.
Naples Tomato was the first restaurant in Florida to introduce an Enomatic machine, which keeps wines fresh for up to six weeks and allows patrons to taste wines using a debit-type card.
Customers can choose 1-, 3- or 6-ounce pours.
The restaurant rotates several hundred different wines through the machine regularly. So the selection is ever changing.
“The concept — which today we call Vine Dining — now really fits the Naples lifestyle, and we think that many other communities will love it too,” Serfass said.
The local restaurant now becomes a prototype. Everything will be tested at the Naples restaurant before going on to other locations.
Local residents and visitors will be asked for their input on new recipes, cocktails, uniforms, decor and service standards.
The restaurant’s 8,000 wine club members will help guide wine-list selections for all other locations.
“That’s one of the things that won’t change is change,” Serfass said. “We are always going to be changing things and evolving.”
Naples Tomato off U.S. 41 North attracts more than 100,000 patrons a year. Initially, it was owned by Jack, 46, and his wife Nadine, 40. To help pay for the national expansion, they’ve brought on other investors.
The restaurant serves homemade pastas, fresh local fish and other specialties. It also offers an award-winning lasagna that was once praised by a New York Times writer Meghan McEwen, who wrote “never will you feast on a better lasagna.”
In its first three years in business alone, the restaurant served more than 250,000 pieces of its lasagna. On Super Bowl Sunday, it has more than 500 take-out orders for the made-from-scratch pasta creation, which Serfass once said was treated “like a fine pastry, not a casserole.”
The restaurant spans 9,000 square feet and was expanded to accommodate growth. Franchise stores aren’t likely to be as big, Serfass said.
“We are going to be rigorous about our systems and our service standards, but we are not going to try to make everything look exactly the same,” he said.
At least one new restaurant is expected to open next year. But franchises won’t be sold to just anybody, Serfass said.
“We are looking for people who have the focus on quality as much as we do and are willing to put the guests first and also be active in their local community,” he said.
The typical restaurant will likely span 7,000 square feet and serve up to 220 guests, with indoor and outdoor seating. The franchises will include the self-service Enomatic wine bar.
The restaurants will make all their own food on site, taking advantage of locally grown produce.
According to a franchise disclosure statement, the local restaurant had total revenues of $3,164,701 in 2008 and $3,180,558 in 2007.
“We have really been fortunate to have a strong customer base that has helped us through this recession,” Serfass said.
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.