5 new restaurants in 1 mile? That’s what appears to be coming in South Lakeland

A new retail development at 4620 S. Florida Ave. will be the site for First Watch, a breakfast, brunch and lunch restaurant headquartered in Bradenton, according to city records. It will be the first in Polk County.

Also at the site will be the county’s second Panda Express restaurant, joining the one at The Shoppes of Lakeland across from Lakeland Square Mall.

The site, just south of East Alamo Drive, is being cleared for new retail space totaling 12,000 square feet for four tenants, the records show.  A Pacific Dental Services office will go into one of the spaces.

One mile north on South Florida at Poppell Drive, a larger site is being cleared for three “proposed restaurants,” city records show.

The records do not identify any of the restaurants, but a city official told The Ledger one will probably be the Miami-based Pollo Tropical chain.

Pollo Tropical did not return phone calls and emails from The Ledger.

Christian Yepes, vice president of development and acquisitions at the Belleair Development Group in Pinellas Park, developer of the site, declined to identify any tenants because of confidentiality agreements. Announcements could come in three to four weeks, he said.

Larry Ross, a business professor at Florida Southern College who follows the restaurant industry, said real estate factors more than industry dynamics are driving the retail expansion along South Florida Avenue.

“South Florida is a prime real estate location,” he said. “The problem is, it’s all developed.”

So when new locations like these two projects open up, it becomes very attractive to any retail business, he said. But the corridor would hold a special attraction for restaurants in the moderately priced range, such as Panda Express and Pollo Tropical.

“Because there are great family demographics in South Lakeland, if you can seat a family of four for $30, you’re in,” Ross said.

Although First Watch is more of an upscale breakfast restaurant than the typical eggs-and-hash place, it still falls in the moderate price range, he added. It will compete directly with Keke’s Breakfast Café at Merchant’s Walk shopping center nearby.

“Lakeland has been attractive to us for quite some time,” said Eleni Kouvatsos, public relations and communications manager at First Watch, on Thursday. “We’re excited to be signing our first lease in Lakeland.”

The company had been searching for a site for about a year before it found the Florida Avenue location, she added.

First Watch operates from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with a menu that includes traditional breakfast fare, such as eggs, waffles and bacon, but also has non-traditional items, she said.

The latter includes “Croque Madame,” a sandwich on grilled brioche with smoked ham, tomato, Gruyere cheese topped with herbs and béchamel sauce and two eggs. Beverages include “Tumeric Lemon Aid” with organic ginger juice.

“First Watch has a more health-focused, farm-fresh menu,” Kouvatsos said.

The chain started in 1983 and has grown to more than 200 restaurants in 18 states, she said. The closest ones to Polk are in Brandon and Winter Garden.

The company also operates more than 300 restaurants in The Egg & I chain, a competitor First Watch purchased in 2015.

According to the Panda Express website, California-based chain of fast-food Chinese restaurants was founded in 1983 and has more than 1,900 stores with $2 billion in annual sales. It says Panda Express is the largest family-owned restaurant in the U.S.

Mike Everage, senior real estate manager for the company, said in an email it hopes to open the new restaurant by the end of the year. It will employ 20 to 25 people.

“We selected a second location in Lakeland due to the success and customer feedback we’ve received at our North Lakeland location,” Everage said.

Jason Crews, vice president of development at the Ferber Co. in Ponte Vedra Beach, the owner of the property at 4620 S. Florida Ave., said the fourth space at the retail center has not been leased.

— Kevin Bouffard can be reached at kevin.bouffard@theledger.com or at 863-401-6980.

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