Recent news that Outback Steakhouse plans to open a restaurant Aug. 21 at Regent Village East has me at turns amused, annoyed and skeptical, but not surprised. Development, particularly in Provo, steamrolls on, so we knew all along that sooner or later one of the many American chain restaurants would want to make a go of it.
But what seems to be a “first” certainly isn’t. The late 1990s in Provo saw the arrival and brief run of Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC has been successful in The Bahamas, but it was a different story in TCI. I’ve tried to sort out why, and have settled on the make-the-story-short comment of a friend on Provo: “They never had any chicken.”
Although I do know one person who actually ate chicken there, online commentators back up my friend’s terse explanation. Hearsay has it that the lack of chicken was due to high customs taxes on the foods imported by the franchise, and that the frustrated management started doing their own sourcing. When a franchise rep visited, he found, instead of chicken, “Kentucky Fried Conch” and rice & peas.
Since then, chains haven’t touched Provo (except in the hotel business, with the came-and-gone Ramada and Comfort Suites and the enduring Club Med). Until now.
While I’m not personally a fan of Outback, I think it’s going to work. Provo has changed, and now a chain restaurant can afford to target tourists alone, instead of needing tourists plus locals for success. The character of the tourists has also changed. An adventurous group of mostly adults who sought to experience island life has made way for families, seekers of “pamper me” vacations and destination wedding parties. These people are more likely to a) want a steak dinner, b) be interested in a kid-friendly place, c) balk a bit at the prices of steak in the resorts’ posh restaurants and d) prefer a canned corporate style of service (“Hello, I’m Jim and I’ll be your waiter”) over quirkiness and unpredictability. Also, those locals who can afford Outback will likely find the menu appealing.
And yet … we shall see. The managing partner of the Provo venture, Stephen Garland, comes from a Salt Cay family and grew up in The Bahamas, where he has much experience in the hospitality industry. Sure, the Bahamas vibe is different from that in the TCI, but the island cultures are close. Perhaps, with both his background and his experience with American tourism, he will be able to bridge the gaps successfully.