TAMPA — New Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino president Joe Lupo has big plans. This was evident in April when the complex unveiled its 700-space Orient Road parking garage and 26,000-square-foot Mezzanine Level Casino, with its "Rock Walk" of 40 new pieces of memorabilia from artists like Beyoncé, Carrie Underwood, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Nicks and Cher arrayed in glamorous glass cases.
But it really came into focus this week when the Tampa Bay Times sat down with Dawn Lazo, the new vice president of food and beverage for the hotel and casino. She most recently held the same position at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, where she led 12 departments and oversaw 73 managers and 700 team members. Lazo arrived two weeks ago, she said, "to make this a culinary destination property. Before, Tampa was lacking aspirational restaurants, (but) now the timing is right."
First and foremost, this means unveiling new concepts. A 120-seat fine-dining American grill, yet to be named, will debut on the new mezzanine level in November or December. It displaces no existing restaurant and will be luxurious but comfortable, with an emphasis on Southern specialties, Lazo said.
This will be followed by an upscale seafood restaurant, also unnamed at this point, adjacent to the new hotel tower where Rise, a casual bakery and restaurant, currently resides. Rise has already moved from its prior location to occupy the space vacated by the short-lived Grey Salt, a first-of-its-kind concept from celebrity chef Marc Murphy. While Lazo wasn't willing to say that Grey Salt had been a flop, she did say that players and regular casino patrons weren't quite sure what to make of it — a sophisticated Mediterranean yet mid-priced restaurant, it was neither the place to celebrate a big win nor where to grab quick solace after a defeat at the gaming tables.
Council Oak, a luxury seafood and steak spot with its own exhibition butcher shop, remains the celebration spot. Will a new seafood restaurant cannibalize from Council Oak, which has another location at the Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla.?
"I don't think so. This will have more of a focus on finfish with some shellfish," Lazo said.
Fresh Harvest, the casino's multi-station restaurant, remains the same, with no plans in the works for an overhaul, "but we're referring to it now as a buffet, because that's what it is," Lazo said. "We resisted that because people think 'Golden Corral.' They don't understand this is five kitchens run independently for one price."
The property's noodle bar, Jubao Palace, will get a renovation and expanded seating, but will essentially remain intact, in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mind-set. According to Lazo, Jubao serves the most customers per seat: With only 15 seats, it does 500 covers per day, many of them the casino's Southeast Asian visitors stopping in for a quick bowl of pho.
Rock 'N Raw sushi stays unchanged; Hard Rock Cafe remains intact (it's operated by Hard Rock International). So without pulling the plug on the existing concepts, the next phase of construction involves new spaces carved out for a chocolate and gelato shop (going where the front desk currently resides), an Italian restaurant and a fresh vision for the pool bar.
Lazo said that, even more than envisioning and executing new concepts, her role involves hiring: "I came here to a long list of open positions. People follow leaders, so my job is to focus on finding amazing leaders."
The new executive chef for the hotel, Albert Tash, arrives next week. A new chef for Council Oak is being finalized. And the name of the chef and general manager of the American grill will be announced soon.
"It's a key staffing period," Lazo said in her office before a tour of the property. "I'm a big changer."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.