Connecticut Restaurant Groups To Expand

Plan B Burger Bar (left,) Barcelona/Bartaco and Max Restaurant Group will expand south of New England this year. (HARTFORD COURANT / May 14, 2014)

If you're traveling this summer, you may see some recognizable Connecticut eateries in unexpected locales. Three Nutmeg State-based restaurant groups are poised to expand their brands south of New England over the next few months.

First up is Max Restaurant Group's The Cooper, slated to open May 19 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. It's described as a "farm to table modern American grill," with a sample dinner menu of charcuterie, small plates, salads, burgers, seafood and steaks.

Though Max Restaurant Group also operates two Massachusetts restaurants – Max's Tavern in Springfield and Max Burger in Longmeadow – this is its first foray out of New England. Founder and president Rich Rosenthal, who owns a home in South Florida with his wife, said he'd noticed the economy rebounding in the region and saw the opportunity to join the restaurant scene in the community. (The Cooper's name was chosen to avoid confusion with a South Florida restaurant group running several Max-named eateries.)

Like its northern counterparts, The Cooper will use produce from local farms and fishermen – the sample menu lists Florida snapper and Key West pink shrimp. But the shift from a cold, snowy climate to a tropical one posed an immediate challenge, Rosenthal said. While the Max chefs in New England eagerly wait for local farms' bounty in the summer, the timing is a little different for Florida producers.

"The farming season kind of goes dormant for a lot of the summer… it gets a little too hot [in Florida] to grow a lot of things then," Rosenthal said, adding that The Cooper will seek quality ingredients from a variety of vendors.

One state over, another expanding Connecticut restaurant brand plans a second presence in Atlanta. Barteca Restaurant Group, which operates the small Barcelona Wine Bar chain, has proliferated over the past few years, starting with a 2011 opening in the city’s Inman Park neighborhood. Since then, the group has also introduced Barcelonas to Brookline, Mass. and Washington, D.C., which joined its six restaurants in West Hartford, New Haven and Fairfield County.

Barteca's Bartaco model, which shifts from stylish Spanish tapas and wine to a beachy, coastal-themed taqueria-and-margarita concept, will open in Georgia’s capital later this summer, said Barteca public relations director Ria Rueda.  "It will be located on the west side of town and we're really excited to be a part of that community," she said in an email.

A Bartaco and another Barcelona are also planned for Reston, Va., Rueda said. These will be the first Bartaco restaurants outside of the tri-state area; the flagship is in Port Chester, N.Y., with others in Stamford, Westport and West Hartford.

Washington D.C. will also welcome Plan B Burger Bar to its restaurant scene this summer, with a projected August opening. This is the first venture outside of New England for the chain, owned and operated by Locals 8 Restaurant Group. Plan B has Connecticut restaurants in Glastonbury, Milford, Simsbury, Stamford and West Hartford, as well as a Massachusetts location in Springfield by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

"DC started as a request from our extremely loyal and passionate guests asking us to come there, we had so many requests we had to give it a harder look," said Lena DiGenti, chief strategy officer for Locals 8, in an email. "[It] fits our model like a glove; the area is focused on food, community, local product, and a business friendly environment."

As for the planning in a far-flung locale: "Logistically, DC made sense for us as a next step, it's less than an hour flight making it a very reasonable stretch and also allows for regional development in [Virginia, Delaware and Maryland,]" DiGenti wrote.

Rosenthal, who said his planning process involved "lots of flights," noted that the biggest hurdle of Max Restaurant Group's Florida expansion has been navigating unfamiliar building and zoning regulations in the town, working through bureaucracy. "[Regulations are] more detailed than they are in Connecticut, which has made it very challenging," he said.

The Cooper will introduce itself to the new neighborhood with a fundraising party May 17, benefiting the Jack Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation. Rosenthal said social media and word of mouth will help build the restaurant’s brand as it develops in South Florida.

"Each [Max] restaurant kind of grows organically within itself, and through our guests," he said. "We’re very committed to quality and service level and style, that we’ll try to get our guests down here to enjoy."