A bloomin’ new eatery

Outback co-founder finds a new food obsession: the great American chicken tender

One might think an onion to be a poor metaphor for a successful career. But when the onion in question is hand-cut, arched open, egg-washed, seasoned, flour-dusted and deep-fried, it’s a brilliant one.

Yes, Tim Gannon’s restaurant career is very much like the popular appetizer he brought to the world: the Bloomin’ Onion.

This is the magic dish that helped propel Outback Steakhouse, the restaurant chain Gannon co-founded with two friends, to international success. The deep-fried onion was a hybrid concept, its aesthetics inspired by a Japanese cookbook, its bold flavors inspired by New Orleans cuisine circa 1980s (the K-Paul spices and blackened redfish craze).

But in the fictional Australia conjured by Outback – a concept inspired by the 1986 movie hit “Crocodile Dundee” – that fried onion bloomed in theatrical proportions. Outback is now approaching $1 billion in Bloomin’ Onion sales, reports Gannon, a Palm Beach resident.

That feat, staggering as it may be, represents Gannon’s past, as he left Outback when the parent company, Bloomin’ Brands, went public last August. His present and, he hopes, future is all about another great American restaurant staple: the chicken tender.

“Everybody loves chicken tenders,” he says.

Gannon is one of the principals behind PDQ, a quickly growing, fast-food chain with a focus on crispy or grilled chicken, and good, old-fashioned service. Short for “People Dedicated to Quality” or “Pretty Darn Quick,” PDQ opened a West Palm Beach location last month on Okeechobee Boulevard, just west of I-95.

“Did they greet you out front with an umbrella?” Gannon asks a PDQ visitor on a rainy day last week.

Yes, they did.

Courtesy umbrellas aside, the service here is marked in subtle, but important details: You order face-to-face at the drive-through, not via an impersonal speaker. Your server calls you by name, and reads back your order before handing it to you. You’ll never drive away with someone else’s chocolate malt.

“We turned the kitchen around, so that our staff is facing the customer. The first thing the customer sees when they enter is our faces. The customer is the central focus,” says Gannon, a Fort Lauderdale native who got his first restaurant job while in high school, parking cars at the Mai Kai.

Gannon’s career has taken him to Aspen as a cook, to New Orleans as a restaurant owner/manager, to Tampa, where he and friends Chris Sullivan and Robert Basham founded Outback, a restaurant concept inspired by a country none of them had visited.

The plan was simple: open five restaurants, generate enough income to live comfortably and play golf.

Well, one can only dream.

Six years later, the company’s revenues were estimated at $ 544 million, according to Inc. magazine, which named the trio Entrepreneurs of the Year in 1994. (Last year, the Tampa-based Bloomin’ Brands, which now also operates Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill, among other restaurants, reported a total revenue of $980.9 million.)

At 64, Gannon, the enterprising guy who grew up modestly as one of six siblings, is deep into his new hot venture. It was one of his former Outback partners, Basham, who co-founded the first PDQ eatery in Tampa two years ago. With nine locations now open in Florida and North Carolina, the company plans to open 50 stores in Florida within the next five years. Next up is a Wellington location, expected to open in September, then Pompano in October, Boca Raton in January 2014, and Palm Beach Gardens in February 2014.

“He’s very passionate about food, and passionate about service,” says Richard Archer, the operating partner at the West Palm PDQ who has known Gannon for 23 years, since Archer opened the first Outback in South Florida, in Boca Raton.

Many a national food trend has come and gone since then, but for Gannon what has emerged as truth from his Outback decades is this: keep your food fresh, your customers well-attended and your eye on details.

Details like blueberries in the coleslaw and Craisins in the crispy chicken salad. Details like the courtesy umbrella, like the jazzy Freestyle soda dispenser that allows you to create up to 152 drink flavors, like the public hand-washing station (stocked with lavender-scented soap) designed to make washing hands fun for the kids.

“We live or die on the issue of hospitality,” says Gannon. “We interviewed 1,600 people to hire 80. What are we looking for? People who know how to smile. We want to know, ‘Do they have hospitality in the heart’?”

When he’s not engrossed with the particulars of chicken tenders and service details, Gannon spends time with wife Christie and their children, and polishes his polo skills. (He’s won five U.S. Open Polo Championships.)

So where does the Bloomin’ Onion’s creator dine out in Palm Beach?

You’ll find him at the Palm Beach Grill, feasting on branzino, or at Buccan, where he is a “big fan” of chef Clay Conley. He loves a pre-tennis breakfast at Cucina dell’Arte, and he considers Chez Jean Pierre’s Scrambled Egg with Hackleback Caviar, served in the egg shell, to be the best appetizer in town.

But a PDQ three-piece chicken tender meal with homemade “Sweet Heat” (sweet-spicy) sauce, hand-cut fries and an Oreo shake wouldn’t be a shabby choice. Everybody loves chicken tenders.

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