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Why do they call it that? Born in Tampa Bay: Outback Steakhouse

10:44 AM, May 2, 2012   |    comments
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It's a restaurant name known around the world, but it got its start right here in Tampa Bay. Say "G'day!" to Outback Steakhouse.

Why do they call it Outback Steakhouse?

It wasn't cursed, but it was close. This building on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa had been home to a series of restaurants.

A series of failures.

But Trudy Cooper and the three other people who decided to open the first Outback Steakhouse here in 1988 had it burned into their brains that their idea would work.

"We knew that we wanted to do a steakhouse, and we knew that we wanted it to have some unique appeal," Cooper told me as she sat in that very restaurant, nearly 25 years later.

From putting employees first, to spending extra for quality ingredients, and even using a giant steak knife -- Cooper says she and her fellow founders dreamed up all of the key ideas for their restaurant in one, single brainstorming session that spanned two or three hours.

Cooking up the name took longer; the group went back and forth over it.

"It was the year of the bicentennial in Australia -- there had been a little of it in the media -- and you just had that sense that Australia was this bigger-than-life, bold, adventurous location. And so that was very appealing to us," Cooper said.

"Outback" is Australia's nickname for the wide-open, rough-and-tumble land away from the cities.

It had just the casual swagger they wanted.

Soon, the theme of "Down Under" was all over. Wild Australia showed up in menu names like Alice Springs Chicken and Victoria's Filet; it influenced the decor; and even the restaurant's original logo color scheme of purple, orange, and red came from Australian sunsets.

But -- get this -- at the time, "none of us had actually been to Australia," Cooper laughed.

These days, Outback has nearly 800 locations worldwide. But when the first one opened nearly 25 years ago, the founders stood right in front of the South Tampa restaurant -- and no one came through the doors.

Yeah, this restaurant -- the one that routinely has a waitlist to get a table in towns across America -- opened with nearly no business.

What, you don't believe me? You koalain' me a liar?

Seriously, the founders stuck friends and family members in the window seats. They wanted to look busy to cars driving by.

I'm not sure that helped, but the fantastic food sure did -- including a signature "Aussie-tizer" they tried to put on every table.

"Just within a couple of weeks, with word-of-mouth, people lined up out the doors and came in for a Bloomin' Onion," Cooper said.

These creations start out as colossal onions a bit bigger than a softball, grown especially for Outback.

Each petal comes out perfectly thanks to a slicing machine so secret, they wouldn't let us near it.

"In the beginning, we cut each of these beauties by hand. And we've all been there, we've all done it with our goggles on. Being sure that even in those days, they were absolutely perfect," Cooper said.

"And if they're not -- they don't pull out correct, they don't taste exactly the way that we want, it's not acceptable."

She says it's that level of dedication -- to quality, to service, to their employees, and to the community -- that makes millions of people think the Australian desert sounds like a great place to get dinner tonight.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

Outback has grown a lot from that one restaurant in South Tampa.

Today, it's the biggest name in a restaurant group called OSI Restaurant Partners that owns parts of five restaurant chains: Outback, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Roy's Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, and Bonefish Grill.

All this month our "Why do they call it that?" series is looking at big restaurant names born in Tampa Bay. Next Wednesday, we'll tell the tale of another restaurant that got its big break in the Tampa Bay area: Checkers.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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