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Sweet Tomatoes Darden restaurant

Orlando-based Darden Restaurants plans new locations for four of its iconic dining brands within Collier and Lee, two in each county. 

It’s been three years since Darden launched a new area restaurant. Its last to open was Yard House in Naples in 2019. Now, Darden has four more restaurants in the works: Bahama Breeze Island Grille in Naples, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in North Naples, LongHorn Steakhouse in Cape Coral and The Capital Grille in south Fort Myers. 

It speaks to the power of Darden. We have a portfolio of eight brands and they’re iconic brands,” said Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers. “We’re super excited about bringing all of those brands there. There’s great population growth down there. There’s a lot going on. We are happy to be a part of it. 

Jeffers said Darden’s latest push to open more area restaurants is a culmination of work that came together fairly quickly. “We just completely paused the pipeline of new restaurants during COVID amid the uncertainty in 2020,” he said. “Had the pandemic not hit, we probably would have opened something sooner than now but we hit the pause button across the board.” 

Darden, which owns more than 1,800 restaurants in the United States, said it would open 55 to 60 restaurants nationwide during fiscal year 2023, which started in June. “We are kind of back to full speed,” Jeffers said. 

With Olive Garden strongly leading Darden’s restaurant brands, one of the company’s competitive advantages is its significant scale, according to Darden’s 2022 annual report. “The benefits of our scale are not only evident in our financial results, but also across our business,” according to the annual report. “Our total sales are more than twice that of our closest full-service restaurant competitor. We also have higher than average individual restaurant sales, lower overhead costs—which we achieve by centralizing our support functions—and margins that are significantly higher than our competitive set.” 

Three of the four projects planned in this region will build on existing second-generation restaurant spaces, with only Bahama Breeze building on an undeveloped outparcel lot at Coastland Center mall in Naples. However, plans for the Capital Grille project are still a bit tentative. “It’s super early but things are moving in the right direction,” Jeffers said, noting that the Bell Tower site could involve extensive redevelopment and possible demolition of the former Mimi’s Café, which closed there in early 2021. “The Capital Grille project is still in its infant stages. We will probably build from the ground up on that site.” 

It would be the second area location for the Captial Grille, which opened nearly 14 years ago at Mercato in North Naples. The fine-dining steakhouse brand has 64 locations, including 10 in Florida.

Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, a casual dining brand with a full bar, plans a North Naples location in the 7,000-square-foot restaurant space vacated in 2020 by Sweet Tomatoes, which operated for 10 years in the Granada Shoppes outparcel on the southeast corner of U.S. 41 North and Immokalee Road. Construction started late last month on the build-out of the new Cheddar’s, which is expected to be completed at the end of January, according to development documents filed with the Collier County Growth Management Department. 

Construction has yet to begin on the 10,390-square-foot Bahama Breeze planned to open in October 2023 next to Coastland Center’s CMX CinèBistro, which launched last fall on the footprint of the former Sears department store demolished in 2019 at the Naples indoor mall. A Caribbean-inspired casual dining chain with more than 40 locations, Bahama Breeze has operated a restaurant and bar for decades on U.S. 41 in south Fort Myers.

LongHorn Steakhouse, Darden’s second most popular brand, is targeted to open later this year in a former Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant space at Cape Coral’s Northpoint shopping center next to BJ’s Wholesale Club on Pine Island Road. The freestanding building, which sold for $2 million in July 2021, is being refurbished after being gutted to create the new steakhouse. 

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