Luxury hotels and resorts across the country are replacing their fine dining restaurants with more-casual concepts, and it’s easy to see why as consumer dining habits evolve. What’s not so easy is to make the transition a success. The Ritz Carlton Sarasota’s new casual concept Jack Dusty shows how it’s done right.
Located between Tampa and Ft. Meyers, coastal Sarasota was once considered primarily a retirement destination. The city today attracts the well-traveled and well-educated, including snowbirds from the East Coast and a younger, artsy local crowd.
As in other coastal resort destinations, dining options in Sarasota have changed in recent years to draw an increasingly sophisticated clientele, who expect more than fried seafood or continental cuisine. But when the Ritz Carlton Sarasota’s guests would ask the concierge where the locals eat, the answer was not Vernona, the white-tablecloth French restaurant on property.
While well regarded and successful, Vernona attracted 60% hotel guests and 40% locals. The resort’s management set out to flip that ratio.
One challenge in drawing a local crowd is that the resort is a bit off the beaten path, says its director of food and beverage James Cole. It’s located between two dining destinations, Main Street, which attracts both locals and tourists, and St. Armands Circle, which is more tourist focused.
“We’re in between and kind of a third option,” Cole says. To make the resort more of a local dinining and drinking destination, the Ritz gutted the old restaurant and spent $3 million transforming it into an easy, breezy seafood concept.
FRESH, FUN AND LOCAL
Jack Dusty, which opened in January, can be described in two words: local and casual. The theme is nautical, fitting the waterfront setting.
In fact, the concept’s name refers to an 18th century short-hand term for the naval store clerk: The Jack Dusty, under the purser, was responsible for doling out the daily lot of rum to sailors on board the ship. Everything from the menu to the names of the drinks reflects seafaring lingo, but not in a way that feels forced.
With a bounty of seafood, farm-fresh produce year round and even local spirits, the Ritz felt that it made sense to go local with Jack Dusty. Even at the bar, “all produce comes from within 35 miles of the resort,” says lead mixologist Roy Roig.
Speaking of the bar, having a lively one is key to Jack Dusty’s success. The cocktail menu features a large selection of rums and specialty cocktails. “Gulpers,” priced $12 each, are “long, refreshing and swiggable beverages” such as the Bait And Switch, with Plymouth gin, pink grapefruit, yellow Chartreuse and Talisker single malt scotch.
Jack Dusty’s “Sippers,” also priced $12 each, are stronger, spirit-based cocktails, such as the Tidewrack Martini, with herb-infused vodka, dry sherry, Cointreau and kummel, served with a bed of house-infused herb and vermouth olives.
The bar also offers “Sandy Bottoms,” punch drinks for sharing that are priced from $16 to $35 each and serve two to four people.
Roig, who came on board a few weeks before the opening and trained the staff, changes the cocktails every few months, both to reflect the seasons and to keep patrons interested and engaged. He believes in consistency and measuring, insisting that all bartenders use the jigger.
But Roig acknowledges that customizing the drinks helps set the bar apart. “Cocktail menus are great, but the real experience is personalizing the cocktails for each guest,” he says. In fact, he adds, “90% of the drinks I pour are off the menu.”
The bar aims to set trends and to keep quality high. Jack Dusty has 30 kinds of glassware and six kinds of ice. The bar staff creates their own infusions and bitters; they even barrel-age spirits on-site.
To attract a local—and younger—clientele to Jack Dusty, the Ritz Carlton Sarasota identified social media as a key element in the launch. “We hired a third party, and even before we opened, we sponsored a New Year’s Eve ‘pineapple drop’ where we gave away ‘Who is Jack Dusty?’ T-shirts with the web address,” Cole says. “We had 800 followers on Twitter before we opened.”
Social influencers were invited in from day one. “We did openings for residents on property, for the social elite and one for social Yelp Elites and Twitter and Facebook and had pretty great response,” Cole says.
And the good buzz continued, long after the free product was gone. Though Jack Dusty’s average check is lower than Vernona’s had been, revenue is up 40% just a few months since opening.
Plus, the resort has exceeded its goal of drawing in more locals: The mix is now 70% locals and 30% hotel guests. Jack Dusty’s relentless focus on service, fun and innovation at the bar will help make it a star on the Sarasota scene. ·
Amy Sherman, a San Francisco-based writer, recipe developer and restaurant reviewer, edits the blog Cooking with Amy and is author of WinePassport: Portugal and Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Appetizers.