The commercial district just north of I-4 and U.S. 98 continues to expand, with a Cajun-themed sports bar, Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, which opened June 21. It’s located adjacent to Lakeland Square in the space formerly occupied by Toys ”R” Us.
“We just think it’s a great market and it’s got great proximity for regional focus as well,” said one of the franchise owners, Mike Lester, 54, of Tampa. “We’ve been very busy, and sales have been great. Just in general, the community has welcomed us with open arms. … I met a guy who had been in 16 days in a row. He loved it that much,” Lester said.
About a third of the restaurant’s menu includes South Louisiana favorites such as etouffee, boudin, gumbo, beignets, pastalaya and Po-Boys. Another third of the menu features American fare such as burgers, wraps, and salads, and the last third is seafood such as redfish, mahi, and catfish.
“We’ve actually sold more fried gator than we have anything else,” Lester said. “We sell a ton of seafood. We take a lot of care. We have a lot of prep hours every single day prepping that amount of food from scratch every single day.“
If that doesn’t bring customers in, they might come for a decadent-sounding dessert, Krispy Kreme bread pudding.
“Each batch of this bread pudding is made out of 72 Krispy Kreme glazed donuts. We make a bread pudding out of it, and we serve it warm. People have been going crazy for that,” Lester said.
The restaurant is part of a Baton Rouge-based chain with dozens of locations across the Sunbelt and into the Midwest. In this area, there’s a location in Wesley Chapel and one under construction in South Tampa. Lakeland marks its latest expansion.
Lester is president of Walking Tall Brands, which is the parent company of his franchises, and he is also a part owner of the Walk-On’s in Wesley Chapel. In all, he said his company plans to develop eight total Walk-On’s in the region, from Sarasota to Ocala. He hasn’t ruled out opening a Walk-On’s on Lakeland’s south side.
Photos by Keni Parks. Click on any image for a larger view.
“If a great site … becomes available in South Lakeland, we might jump on it as well,” Lester said. “I know several other restaurants have multiple locations like that, one on the north and one on the south. We’ve been very pleased with the reception in [this] market so far.”
It was a gamble to open the restaurant on U.S. 98. Lester and the other investors signed a lease three weeks before the country shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic, Lester said. They had the opportunity to back out of the lease, but he said they decided to move forward with the project.
“It was a risk and some people thought we were nuts for taking that risk. Several people said you’re crazy, I can’t believe you’re committing yourself to this project when all the restaurants are closed,” Lester recalled.
Although Walk-On’s is a chain restaurant, he said the company committed to helping the Lakeland community.
“Before we made the first penny of profit in Lakeland, we partnered with kidsPACK and all of the proceeds from our pre-opening nights went to them. We wrote them a check for almost $8,500 so they could help feed needy children in Polk County,” Lester said.