"With a restaurant, after a certain amount of time, you have to do a refresh."
That's how Caledon Concepts President and CEO Lee Karlins explains the recent brand-wide changes at Ceviche.
The venerable tapas bar and restaurant, which turns 19 this year, has been reworking the look and menus of its three locations over the past 10 months. South Tampa was first, followed by Orlando, and on Nov. 14, the final step in the downtown St. Pete revamp (refinishing the floors) marked an end to the extensive updates.
"You have to stay relevant, you gotta stay competitive in the market," Karlins continued. "And people's tastes change, and the way people dine changes."
Tapas, or small plates, are much more common than they were 20 years ago, yet Ceviche, he says, remains relevant. Think about it: Folks can get their grub on with multiple people in their party — four, six, whatever — and order an assortment of plates, whether they're sharing or not.
During the revamp of Ceviche, which has made very few menu changes during its almost two-decade run, it was important for the cuisine to be consistent at each restaurant. That's why Karlins and Caledon Concepts Director of Operations Dave Madera focused on the food first when they joined the team in January.
They brought on Matt Rainey, formerly of Ceviche's nearby sibling Rococo Steak, as corporate executive chef to create a fresh bill of fare and spearhead the rollouts, which took close to a month at every location after training, preparation and ongoing development (ensuring the staff had a good grasp of the food). An iPad program from Tampa-based FusionPrep with Rainey's rewritten recipes and photos of the dishes, among other features, is one thing that helps the kitchen maintain consistency.
To make way for more traditional-style dishes, the something-for-everyone menu was cut, a lot.
"When the menu started I believe it was 120 items, and it's very difficult to execute 120 items really great. Then it went down to 100, then it was 90. When we came in this year, it was like 82. [Now] we're at 52 or 53 items on the menu, so we cut almost 30 items," Karlins said.
For dinner, patrons choose from just two pages of plates — tortilla española (onion and potato omelet), paellas, house ceviche and croquetas included. Madera also dropped the drink selection to two pages, changing the cocktails and wine list "pretty much 100 percent."
The only Ceviche that caters to the lunchtime crowd is St. Pete’s. Its lunch lineup, introduced in the last couple weeks, plays on beloved sandwiches with Spanish roots.
There's the bocadillo de calamares, a take on Madrid's simple squid sandwich with crispy calamari, lettuce, pickled Fresno peppers and charred lemon aioli, as well as Barcelona's po' boy-like interpretation of hot ham and cheese: the bikini. Named after the Bikini concert hall, the ooey, gooey sandwich features ham, chorizo, Manchego, fig jam, Creole mustard, pickled serranos and arugula.
Despite the facelift, Ceviche has kept several of its most popular dishes, retaining options like hummus, guacamole and baba ganoush alongside longtime signatures patatas bravas and albondigas (chorizo, pork and veal meatballs). But some of the sauce-heavy items were simply out of date.
"We wanted to focus on really, really intensely on great quality food — all made-to-order, all super fresh," the CEO said. "We changed all the plateware, all the silverware, all the napkins. We changed the tabletops. Pretty much anything that encompasses the guest experience was touched and changed in some way or fashion."
Incorporating classic Mediterranean colors like browns and whites into the decor and remodeling the bars in Tampa and St. Pete were also among the updates. Continuity was the goal, but a challenging one, because the restaurants, though all headquartered inside historic buildings, don't look the same.
The Orlando space dates back to the 1940s or 1950s, Tampa is an older house, probably from the ’50s or ’60s, and the St. Pete location is one of the city's oldest properties. Karlins said they knew the Ceviche St. Pete site, at almost 100 years old, would be the most difficult to rework, so they saved it for last. Its kitchen is smaller than the others (which presented menu challenges) and St. Pete's noise ordinance and the proximity of the Ponce De Leon Hotel, which houses the restaurant, meant that remodeling at night, an industry norm, wasn't an option.
Underneath the St. Pete restaurant, Ché — opened in late April and short for Ceviche — was another renovation project early on. The below-street-level space had mainly functioned as an overflow dining room with occasional entertainment. Now, with new paint, lighting and fabrics, the original stained concrete floors exposed, and a broader Latin tunes schedule, Che has its own identity. Spotlighting the flavor profiles and origins of 13 cocktails, the live music venue's flip-book-style beverage list, separate from upstairs, is a highlight.
Pieces of history endured at the three restaurants as well. The Caledon crew nixed St. Pete's original mosaic tables on the inside, for example, but kept them along the patio out front, while the ornate accents of Ceviche Orlando, like a wine display from France's Rothschild estate and a room with beams from an 1800s New Orleans church, aren't going anywhere.
"The hard part was really — we wanted to be very careful because it is such an iconic brand. We felt it just needed a little bit of a jolt, a little shot in the arm," according to Karlins. "And we feel we have a great brand now. Again, all of this in the last 10 months has really been a big investment in our future. We're ready to go and get another spot now."
Yup, they're looking at locations here and there. Scouting will probably start for real after Jan. 1.
"We have really great spots," he said, "so we don't want to let anybody down."