G'Bye, Mate

'Outback Steakhouse Shaped My Career as a Food Writer'

Our food editor pens a final farewell to the place that shaped her entire career.

By Lauren Jackson February 29, 2024

The Outback Steakhouse on South Tamiami Trail has closed.

A Sarasota institution closed this weekend. Yes, it was a chain restaurant, but the Outback Steakhouse on South Tamiami Trail trained some of Sarasota’s most dedicated hospitality workers—including this writer.

Outback Steakhouse was founded in 1988 in Tampa. It marries Australian themes like didgeridoos and boomerangs with, well, absolutely zero Australian inspiration in terms of food. Sure, there's grilled shrimp on the barbie, but is that inherently Australian? I think not.

Even as I write, I can't get Outback's original phone number out of my head: 924-GDAY (as in "g'day, mate!").

Somehow, the mishmash of decór and casual American fare, like the insanely popular Bloomin' Onion, was a wild success. The South Trail Outback often saw wait times of more than two hours, even on a random Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. I think this was largely thanks to its location, between busy Siesta Key and what at that time was largely underdeveloped South Sarasota County. The lore of the South Sarasota location was that it was the second Outback to open once the company decided to expand into other markets. I've never been able to confirm this tidbit, but will continue to accept it as truth.

Back in 2001, I knew some of the older girls who worked as hosts at Outback and asked my mom for a ride to the restaurant to fill out an application. I was 15 years old and had a penchant for designer duds that my parents were unwilling to pay for—including two Fendi purses; loads of Saks Fifth Avenue dresses, tops and skirts; and, ultimately, a white Volkswagen Cabrio, which was fully funded by Outback earnings and gave me the autonomy to get into as much trouble as possible. 

When I handed my application to Outback’s then-proprietor, Tim Wong (who now manages The Cottage on Siesta Key), he told me, "I don't hire kids your age, but since a couple of girls vouched for you, I'll take a chance." 

I quickly learned how to host and was soon promoted to takeout, where my young, high school-aged colleagues and I earned upwards of $120 per evening—a small fortune for a 15-year-old. We packed takeout bags, flirted with cute boys picking up orders for their families and fielded hundreds of phone calls each shift. I was hooked. I already had a passing interest in food, but working in a fast-paced restaurant environment elevated my interest to obsession.

If I hadn't worked at Outback Steakhouse, I probably wouldn't be a food writer today.

I also made lifelong friends at Outback. I still regard Stephanie Brown, who now manages Pop’s Sunset Grill, and her sister Lauren as family. Nancy Jackson, who I most recently saw at Wicked Cantina, always greets me with a smile and a hug. And Melissa Davenport, who has worked for the Bloomin’ Brands corporate office, First Watch and many others, remains a staple in my social media feeds.

Sometimes we were wild at the Outback. I got into some trouble after hours—hopping into hot tubs at apartment complexes where none of us lived, or going to the beach at midnight, which meant I missed curfew more than once. And I might have grown up a touch too fast, thanks to swift and easy access to alcohol courtesy of older servers who, in hindsight, were also just kids. After many, many late-night parties, when I appeared to be heading down the wrong path, Tim Wong was there, calling my parents and letting them know they needed to rein me in—which they did. I'm still grateful that he and so many others looked out for me as I became a young woman.

I continued to work for Outback through high school before transferring to Carrabba’s (also under the Bloomin’ Brands umbrella). After Carrabba’s, I went on to work at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, where I fell deeply in love with food. Roy’s was the reason I attended culinary school, which paved the way for future kitchen work, hospitality management and, ultimately, writing about the industry. But I wouldn’t have ended up at Roy's had I not started at the Outback all those years ago.

As locally owned restaurants pushed the boundaries of Sarasota’s culinary landscape, popular chains like Outback lost their place in some patrons' hearts—although the South Trail location remained busy until Outback announced its closure this week. And while I’m pleased to report on creative food happenings around town, I’ll never forget where I started: as a happy hostess at the Outback.

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