By Eric Pera
Found on TheLedger.com. Click here to view.
LAKELAND — Lakeland’s private Bonnet Springs Park promises 180 acres of nature trails, gardens and activities for visitors — young and old — who are bound to work up an appetite.
Though still in the planning stages, the sprawling complex set to open by spring 2021 will contain several food venues, including a banquet hall for weddings and other special events, and a healthful, quick-serve restaurant catering to families with young children and athletes on the go.
Also under consideration is a showcase restaurant that would attract people from far and wide.
“We’re just trying to create a place that perhaps doesn’t exist in Lakeland” yet, said David Bunch, a Lakeland real estate broker and co-founder of Bonnet Springs Park. “When you talk about restaurants you have to be careful; they’re not all great successes … We’re taking it very slow and very careful. You have to get it right.”
With a price tag of approximately $80 million, much is at stake with getting it right. Bunch and his team, including co-founder Bill Tinsley and Barney and Carol Barnett and their sons, Wesley and Nick, are drawing on the expertise of KK&P, a restaurant-industry consultant, to formulate a plan for a full-service, fine dining restaurant serving lunch and dinner.
Sometime in early September the group is expected to invite bids for a food-service operator, or operators, who likely will bring their own ideas to the mix. But the idea of creating a destination restaurant carries weight with Bunch and his director of development, Heide Evans Waldron.
The park, which will include a botanical garden, manicured lawns and views of 80-acre Lake Bonnet, offers a unique setting for a restaurant that potentially will pull out-of-county visitors seeking something different, Waldron said.
Planners hope to capitalize on the natural setting, incorporating plenty of windows and patio space into the restaurant design that will mesh with a two-story welcome center, she said.
So far the concept includes a chef-driven menu that’s “regionally relevant” using locally sourced goods when possible, Waldron said, adding that planners envision keeping prices down to earth.
“It won’t be super high-end,” she said, but “making it a destination restaurant” is important.
Bonnet Springs Park also will serve as the new home of Explorations V Children’s Museum, which plans a major expansion with five distinct galleries and hundreds of hands-on exhibits.
The park’s proximity to downtown, with its wealth of shops, eateries, bars and other entertainment venues, including RP Funding Center, is sure to add allure, which bodes well for park attendance, said Larry Ross, a professor emeritus of business administration at Florida Southern College and a former restaurateur.
The challenge is figuring out how to develop a fine dining experience appealing enough to compete with the city’s wealth of popular chain operations and a handful of independently owned destination restaurants, he said.
Finding the right balance is crucial, Ross said, because local demographics aren’t ideal for supporting a restaurant that’s too expensive.
“That (upscale) segment of the business has the highest risk,” Ross said. “This is not New York; this is not going to be Tavern on the Green (in Central Park).”
Preliminary plans also call for an upscale fast-casual cafe delivering healthy meals and snacks in a cafeteria-like setting. The cafe would be adjacent to Explorations V Museum and include indoor, outdoor and rooftop seating.
Rounding out the park’s primary food venues is an events center capable of seating up to 350 guests. The facility will include a fully-equipped catering kitchen.
Proposals from vendors are due Oct. 1 with selections expected to be confirmed by Dec. 3.
Bunch said getting the food right is critical to the park’s bottom line as a necessary source of revenue.
“We’ve consulted with restaurant experts (who tell us) whatever you do, do it right and do it well,” he said. “And pay attention to your market.”