Naples Tomato awards first franchise, in Connecticut

Former chef Pete Moore prepares items for the mozzarella bar at Naples Tomato. He left the restaurant in July 2009. Kelli Stanko/Special to the Daily News

Former chef Pete Moore prepares items for the mozzarella bar at Naples Tomato. He left the restaurant in July 2009. Kelli Stanko/Special to the Daily News

“Vine Dining” is headed to Connecticut.

Naples Tomato has awarded its first franchise in the Stamford/Greenwich area. A restaurant modeled after the original one in North Naples off U.S. 41 is expected to open up there later this year.

“We targeted Connecticut as a place to start,” said Jack Serfass, co-founder and co-chairman of Naples Tomato Franchising.

“We think the demographics of that area go well with our concept. There are a lot of CEOs and people who enjoy good food and wine. It’s a nice area of the country.”

With its trademarked “Vine Dining” concept, the restaurant takes an American approach to Mediterranean food. It offers homemade food and an extensive wine list.

The eatery is designed to have a broad appeal, from the young to the old.

More than 300,000 people have tried the restaurant since it opened nearly five years ago. The owners announced plans to sell franchises across the U.S. in October.

“We’ve had about 75 people express interest,” Serfass said. “We have been trying to really be selective as to who we would award a franchise to.”

Interest has come from many states including New Jersey and New York.

“We are not requiring deep restaurant experience as much as we are deep business experience,” Serfass said. “We want to make sure that when we do award a franchise that the franchise will be successful.”

The official announcement of the first franchise agreement will be made in New York today at a luncheon organized by the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau for travel editors and writers. At the event, journalists will have the opportunity to see, hear and experience some of the sounds, sights and tastes of Collier County, said Jonell Modys, the bureau’s public relations and communications manager.

As part of the event, Naples Tomato is serving four of its signature dishes as appetizers.

The license has been awarded to EWINE LLC of Southington, Conn. The principals have built and operated successful businesses in Connecticut, from assisted living centers to construction companies.

Ed Jamele Jr., the managing partner and president of EWINE, has been an entrepreneur for 30 years.

“I had eaten at the restaurant a few years ago,” he said. “I was intrigued by the concept. I had been there with my family on vacation.”

Jamele has already hired a manager, with 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry.

He said the food at Naples Tomato is “fantastic” and so is the service. He likes the wine lounge where customers can buy wine by the ounce and the mozzarella bar.

“It’s pretty well thought out and it’s convenient to go there with your family. Then again I think there is enough there for everybody to make them happy,” Jamele said.

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 franchises will include the Enomatic wine bar. The typical restaurant will likely span 7,000 square feet and serve up to 220 guests, with indoor and outdoor seating.

Naples Tomato serves homemade pastas, fresh local fish and other specialties, including an award-winning lasagna that was once praised by a New York Times writer as the best around.

Jamele planned to be in New York for the official announcement of his franchise license, but he got stuck in Naples because of a blizzard up North. His flight was cancelled. He came to Naples earlier this week to finalize the deal with Naples Tomato.

Serfass flew up a day early to make sure he would be in New York for the tourism luncheon today.

He said the local restaurant is undergoing changes that will be copied at its franchises, including adding Naples art work.

“We really believe this will be good for our local community,” Serfass said.

Each restaurant will make its own food from scratch, just as the original one does, he said.

“It’s going to require more training and recipe instructions,” he said.

With the first franchise in Connecticut, one of the biggest challenges will be finding a location.

“Greenwich has very little space available,” Serfass said. “We will have to be patient and try to make sure we pick the right location.”

“The location is going to be very important,” he said. “So we don’t want to rush the opening.”

There are hopes of opening the franchise by fall.

Chicago-based iFranchise Group Inc. helped develop the expansion strategy for Naples Tomato, along with the law firm of Faegre & Benson LLP. Both companies are recognized for their expertise in franchising.

“We’ve gotten a surprising amount of interest, given the economy,” Serfass said. “We are really surprised about how much interest there is and we are encouraged by that.”

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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