When Suzanne and Roger Perry moved to Tampa, Florida 15 years ago, they were impressed with the number of high-quality restaurants the area had to offer. There was great food and great variety, but there was also a problem: The restaurants they enjoyed were pretty formal, and the couple wanted to have a relaxed, casual dinner while still enjoying top-quality fare. So they decided to make their own venue, the ideal restaurant they were looking for. They opened their first on-premise eatery in early 2009 and since then their company, Datz Restaurant Group, has grown to encompass seven on-premise units and a couple additional virtual ghost kitchen concepts, with annual sales topping $20 million.
Like every restaurant group, Datz had to make major adjustments to stay afloat over the last year of Covid-19. But as the pandemic restrictions ease and Florida reopens, the company is poised to see continued growth. Beverage alcohol will play a key role, as it has for the company since its conception. The bar contributes about 20% of Datz Restaurant Group’s total revenue, and that share is primed to grow, as the company recently added a new bar concept and is eyeing a cocktail-to-go program.
“All of our restaurants have very distinct voices and personalities, and they’re all fun,” says co-owner Suzanne Perry. She describes the bar as a significant and profitable part of the company’s business. “The beverage program is important to our survival,” Perry adds. “It keeps people coming back to our restaurants. We were all about beer originally, but we’ve changed that now. We’ve gone from super heavy on beer to super over-the-top mixology and cocktails with crazy ingredients and fancy garnishes. And now, through Covid, we’re streamlining again.”
The Perrys’ initial concept was going to be a small deli with just a few seats and a focus on sandwiches, but after a week they changed course, revamping the space into a full-service restaurant with a more upscale menu. That restaurant turned into Datz, which today boasts three locations in greater Tampa and a vibrant atmosphere and menu.
“When we open a concept, we try to bring something into the market that’s not already here,” Perry says. “Datz was supposed to be a deli for sandwiches and now it’s a huge, over the-top, fun carnival. At Datz, we play with pop culture.”
Datz has been bar-focused from the start. The Perrys launched the first unit as a craft beer bar before that was a popular concept in Florida. It opened in 2009 with 36 tap handles and a large roster of craft beer labels, quickly becoming a beer destination. Over time, the restaurant has added more mainstream beers to its selection and also branched out further into cocktails and mixology. Today, the flagship Datz Tampa has 26 beer taps and offers roughly 15 specialty cocktails. Spirits and mixed drinks dominate beverage sales at Datz now, comprising 15% of total sales across the concept, followed by beer at 4% and wine at 1%. Perry notes that alcohol sales were higher before the Covid-19 pandemic and that the company is working on strategies to boost drinks sales again.
Standout cocktails ($8-$12) at Datz include the Champagne Supernova, made with New Amsterdam Stratosphere gin, lemon juice, and a house-made edible glitter potion, topped with Rey de Copas Brut sparkling wine. The drink, which is available during brunch, lunch, and dinner, changes color as the sparkling wine is poured in, creating a photo-worthy effect that gets a lot of attention on social media. The Salted Caramel Old Fashioned, mixed with Devil’s River Bourbon, Lustau Solera Los Arcos Dry Amontillado Sherry, Fee Brothers Black Walnut and West Indian Orange bitters, and house-made salted caramel syrup, is another popular drink at Datz during the day, as is the brunch specialty Dunk This Doughnut, made with Wild Turkey 101 rye, Grind Espresso liqueur, Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters, and cold brew coffee, topped with a powdered doughnut.
Those are joined by beers like locally made Cigar City Brewing’s Florida Cracker White ale and Coppertail Brewing’s Unholy Tripel Belgian-style ale, and by well-known labels like Yuengling Traditional lager, Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Tecate ($4-$8 a draft pour, bottle, or can). Datz also has a small wine list with approachable offerings like Zonin Prosecco, Overstone Sauvignon Blanc, and MacMurray Pinot Noir ($6-$8 a glass; $24 a 750-ml.). The food menu at Datz spans salads and tacos, burgers and sandwiches, and larger entrees like shrimp and grits, short rib pappardelle, and butternut squash ravioli (food ranges from $9-$24).
“Our original inkling was to get a tiny little restaurant with one chef and four tables, and that venue now seats 220 people,” Perry says. “Datz is masculine, edgy, and trendy. It’s urban, with metal, wood, and brick inside. Each location looks different, but they all have the same metals, corrugated aluminum, and brick. It’s industrial, with a softer, urban-industrial feel.” Datz has locations in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Riverview, Florida. Beverage director Dean Hurst notes that the Riverview unit has the most beer taps currently and that the company plans to increase the number of beer draft pours in St. Petersburg. “At Datz it’s all about having the new, cool thing,” Hurst explains.
Creating A Company
Four years after Datz opened, the Perrys added their second concept and formed their overall company, Datz Restaurant Group. Their next venture, Dough, opened in 2013 out of necessity for Datz Tampa—the flagship Datz restaurant needed a bigger parking lot so the Perrys bought the bakery next door to get more parking spaces. Dough is a whimsical café, sweet shop, and coffeehouse, offering upscale doughnuts, cupcakes, and ice cream ($2.25-$28).
Following that, The Perrys added another bar-heavy concept with Dr. BBQ, a modern barbecue eatery created in partnership with well-known pit-master Ray Lampe. Located in St. Petersburg, the venue focuses on smoked meats and has a Bourbon-forward bar program to match. Dr. BBQ pours about 20 Bourbons and ryes ($8-$21 a 1½-ounce pour), highlighting special labels, and also lists a handful of Tequilas and mezcals ($7-$24 a 1½-ounce pour). These join whisk(e)y-based cocktails like the Apple Cider Old Fashioned, made with Four Roses Bourbon, Angostura Aromatic bitters, and apple cider syrup, and the Always Summertime, blending Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, Giffard Peche de Vigne liqueur, lemon juice, and sweet tea syrup (cocktails are $10). Dr. BBQ’s food menu includes pulled and sliced meats and ribs, as well as sandwiches, tacos, and sides ($6-$34).
The company’s latest project, the tiki-themed bar Burnt Ends, opened in March in an outdoor space above Dr. BBQ. The cocktail den has a tropical vibe, with rum-based tiki classics like the Mai Tai, Mr. Bali Hai, and Three Dots and a Dash ($8-$13). “The downstairs bar at Dr. BBQ is going to remain focused on brown spirits, mostly Bourbon and agave spirits, and beer,” Hurst says. “But the upstairs tiki bar Burnt Ends is a full-on different experience, with rum drinks and classic tiki.” Perry adds that Burnt Ends is inspired by Chicago bar Three Dots and a Dash, noting that combining barbecue and tiki is something entirely new for the Tampa Bay area.
Described as a modern American meatery, Donovan’s is Datz Restaurant group’s take on a steak house. The concept in Riverview, Florida opened last year during the pandemic and was well received from its first day, quickly becoming one of the company’s top-performing units. Donovan’s has a raw bar and seafood dishes to complement a full selection of steaks (entrées are $14-$89), as well as Datz’s most complete wine program. Donovan’s pours 15 wines by the glass and offers roughly 50 more in bottles ($8-$14 a 6-ounce pour; $11-$20 a 9-ounce pour; $28-$167 a 750-ml.), including prestige labels like Failla Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cayuse En Cerise Syrah. The restaurant has a variety of craft and big-name beers, too ($5-$7 a draft pour, bottle, or can), as well as specialty cocktails ($10) like the Big Guava, made with The Florida Cane Distillery’s El Encanto rum and guava and lime juices.
“Even as an elevated steak house, Donovan’s is fun,” Perry says. “The price points are higher than at our other restaurants, but it’s still more relaxed, trendy, and approachable than a lot of well-known steakhouses around here. We purposefully stayed away from the white tablecloth, dark interior look. We have wood tables and rustic tableware, with open-fire cooking, whitewashed bricks, and concrete floors. It’s not stuffy. People are very happy that we’re here.”
Over the last tumultuous year, Datz Restaurant Group also took the opportunity to experiment with some different genres of restaurant fare that don’t get heavy play on their main menus. The Perrys opened two ghost kitchens inside Dough to play with different types of food—Bougie Pizza and the fried-chicken focused Cluck Yeah, both of which offer takeout and delivery as well as limited on-premise dining at Dough. In addition, they added a commissary kitchen inside the massive cooking area of Datz St. Petersburg, allowing other chefs to come in and use the space temporarily.
“We’ve had a lot of learning curves over the last year,” Perry says. “No one had a good year in 2020, but we were able to survive because we can change really fast. It drives some of our managers crazy, but it keeps us going. We developed our own mobile app this past year and launched our own food delivery service.”
All of Datz Restaurant Group’s venues are currently open, with social distancing measures in place. Due to decreased capacity restrictions, the restaurants are making an effort to streamline their menus and their processes. Perry notes that throughout the Covid-19 pandemic they’ve had issues with supply and inventory, so they’re purposefully scaling back for now, and she adds that there have also been staffing concerns. The company went from almost 400 employees before Covid-19 to only 27 when everything shut down and getting employees back as the restaurants have reopened has presented challenges.
“We’re committed to maintaining a dynamic bar program while making shifts to simplify and streamline how we do things,” Hurst says. “The bar is a big part of our business and the bars are dynamic. We move a lot of volume.” From a bar perspective, Datz Restaurant Group held back on offering drinks to-go when Florida first allowed it last year, but Perry and Hurst are looking to add them now, pending legal approval from Florida’s governor. They’re already thinking about formulating cocktails and ready-to-drink options for delivery and takeout and they’re optimistic that these offerings will further boost beverage sales.
Going forward, Perry says her restaurants will continue to be positioned as destinations in greater Tampa, Florida. “Sales are approaching pre-pandemic numbers,” she adds, noting that delivery is taking a larger share than before Covid-19. “People are coming out and we’re planning to layer in alcohol delivery. That’s our next major growth opportunity. We’re ready to get back to normal and back to hospitality. We want to be full of people and full of life.”