Seafood Restaurant Shells Set to Sail in South Lakeland

Shells is on the verge of opening a seafood restaurant in south Lakeland, where steak is still the boss. The small Tampa-based chain will hold its Lakeland grand opening Jan. 15 at 5125 S. Florida Ave. The big building was most recently occupied by Manny’s Chophouse, which opened in Lakeland in 2013 and closed last May.

The 160–seat restaurant plans a soft opening Jan. 13 and 14.

The place has undergone a complete makeover. Gone are the car-themed decorations, including old license plates, featured at Manny’s. It’s in with fish murals and walls with chalkboard menu teasers that include colorful fish and shellfish.

Shells has a large menu. It includes appetizers of shrimp and crab dip with tortilla chips, jumbo lump crab cakes and conch fritters.

The entrees feature shrimp and cheese tortellini, snow or dungeness crabs and jambalaya. Of course there’s key lime pie for dessert, but there’s also something called towering chocolate cake.

John and Jessica Christen own the six Shells locations in the Tampa Bay area. John Christen recommends you try the jambalaya, clam chowder, shrimp pasta or salmon Felix. The Felix topping includes jumbo lump crabmeat, roasted red peppers and a lobster cream sauce.

Jessica and John Christen

Lakeland has long been a place for steak. And Shells now sits nearly in the afternoon shadow of Outback Steakhouse, just south of the steakhouse on South Florida Avenue.

There’s a regular cattle auction in Lakeland, not a fish auction. And there’s plenty of “Beef–it’s what’s for dinner” bumper stickers around.

The Christens aren’t daunted by the dominance of steak in the area. “That just leaves more room for us,” John Christen says.

And Jessica Christen appeared serious when she said Shells should print up some “Shrimp–it’s what’s for dinner” stickers.

Larry Ross, a professor emeritus at Florida Southern College and a restaurant business expert, said steakhouses still dominate the Lakeland restaurant landscape, but that dominance has waned a little in the last five or 10 years.

Shells in Lakeland has a valuable advantage in that people are familiar with it before it opens, Ross said.

Shells paid $1.75 million for the property, a big hike from the $552,500 it sold for in 2012.

But Ross said it was still a good deal. “You couldn’t build that building for less than $2 million,” he said. “It was built to be a restaurant and it’s perfect for them.”

Ross likes the prospects for the new Shells. “They’re in a not-crowded niche, and if they do it well they’ve got a great chance for success.”

At one point Shells had numerous locations in Florida but had expanded too quickly. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and shuttered all but one location, including one in Winter Haven.

With the opening in Lakeland, Shells now has six locations in Tampa Bay. They include both North and South Tampa, St. Pete Beach, Brandon and Carrollwood.

  • 5125 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland 
  • Monday through Thursday 4-10; Friday and Saturday 4-11; Sunday 12-10
  • Web; 863-213-4889
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