KISSIMMEE — The first Lazy Dog restaurant in Central Florida has opened near Walt Disney World and the Margaritaville Resort Orlando, but the California-based chain is looking to continue growing in Orlando.
Lazy Dog could “safely” end up having four restaurants in the Orlando market, CEO and founder Chris Simms told the Orlando Sentinel in an interview at an opening event for the eatery. The chain is now looking for locations on International Drive and in Winter Park.
“I think this is a fantastic place to introduce our brand to more of the country,” Simms said. “I think Orlando has the opportunity to be able to both have restaurants in those areas that do have more tourists coming to them, and then at the same time, going to the suburbs and catering to the Orlando residents as well.”
When going into a new market such as Orlando, the goal is normally to get two to three restaurants open in two years, Simms said.
The Lazy Dog on Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway officially opened Wednesday after a soft opening event Tuesday. It has a full bar and a menu that includes chicken pot pie, barbecue bison meatloaf, burgers, Korean ribeye bibimbap and Thai noodles.
Simms said the menu draws in customers with its classic comfort food, but then guests venture out to more unique items like the bibimbap.
“The menu is this beautiful combination of these craveable classics, and then this approachable innovation that really kind of gets people excited,” Simms said.
The look of the restaurant is inspired by Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Simms’ family has a home. The location also helped spark the chain’s name, when Simms saw his mother’s dog resting by the fire there.
“What a perfect way to kind of describe what I want people to feel like when they come into our restaurants,” Simms said. “I want them to be able to just sit back, relax and just spend great time with friends and family.”
The chain also sells frozen “TV Dinners” for $10 that customers can then heat up at home. One of those offerings is salisbury steak with mixed vegetables and a peanut butter cup brownie dessert.
“You can’t find this quality if you go to the supermarket and you try to buy one of the TV dinners in the frozen aisle,” Simms said. “The things that are supposed to be crispy, are crispy. The little dessert like cooks up perfectly.”
Jenna Orme, 39, of Clermont, ate dinner at Lazy Dog with her husband and four sons, ages 2 through 11, during the soft opening Tuesday night. After driving by as the restaurant was built, Orme had the chili crunch ahi tuna “Roadtrip Bowl” for dinner. She said the restaurant was kid friendly and the family would be back.
“It was delicious. It was filling, satisfying,” Orme said of her meal. “Nice and refreshing.”
Lazy Dog started in 2003 and has expanded across the country to 48 restaurants, with about half of them in California.
Following the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Lazy Dog opened four restaurants in 2022 and is slated to have five new restaurants in 2023. It came to Florida in 2021, with its one opening taking place in Boca Raton.
San Diego-based restaurant analyst John Gordon was impressed by Lazy Dog’s expansion given the pandemic and difficulty restaurants have faced staffing up during what has been called the Great Resignation.
“For Lazy Dog to have made the jump and to expand into these other markets relatively recently is a testament,” Gordon said.
Simms said privately-owned Lazy Dog was able to return to being fully staffed quicker than other restaurants, which has helped drive their growth.
“Because we were able to staff, we were able to open up full hours,” Simms said. “We were able to capture a bunch of market share. We were able to really grow the business even within the existing restaurants, which then enabled us and gave us confidence, to then continue to grow across the country.”
Lazy Dog has about 6,300 total restaurant employees with about 200 in Orlando, according to spokeswoman Sara Swiger.
“We make all of our decisions with people in mind,” Simms said.
Simms attributes the company’s staffing success to leadership training and creating a roadmap for hourly restaurant employees to move up into management.
“The No. 1 reason why people leave a job is because of their boss,” Simms said. “Therefore, we’re creating better bosses so that our teammates feel appreciated and are motivated.”
While fears over a potential economic recession have loomed over the last year, Simms was optimistic at his Orlando restaurant’s opening when asked about challenges for his industry.
“I’m feeling really good about the future of casual dining,” Simms said.