ORLANDO -- Central Florida is in for a world-class lounge, if Mark NeJame has his way.
He's cut a deal with George V Restauration, the Paris-based company behind the original Buddha Bar restaurant and lounge in Paris, to build a $6 million to $7 million spinoff called Little Buddha in Central Florida.
Its location has not been finalized, but NeJame -- a successful attorney, real estate developer and restaurateur -- expects to have Orlando's Little Buddha open inside of a year after finalizing the location, located between Restaurant Row and downtown.
Details are far from settled, although NeJame says his contract spells out in detail everything from the size of the Buddha statue that will dominate the room to details on the music to be played. He plans to employ "a world-class architect " to design the restaurant's interior.
The larger Buddha bars average 15,000 square feet, while Little Buddha locations are in the 10,000-square-foot range -- and all of them have become celebrity hot spots.
The Buddha Bar in the Hotel George V in Paris is renowned for its Asian/French cuisine, lavish decor and the late-night crowd that flocks there for the chill-out lounge music as much as the exotic drinks and after-club menu. In fact, there's a whole revenue stream derived from the sale of Buddha Bar-labeled CDs with music mixes from the lounge.
Buddha Bar has locations in Beirut, Lebanon; Dubai, the United Arab Emirates; and New York City. Little Buddha locations are in Las Vegas, Chicago, Paris and Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
Menu items at the Las Vegas Little Buddha range from smoked Hawaiian potstickers to tangerine and chili-glazed lamb chops, with entrees from $16 to $45. There's also an extensive array of sushi.
The Orlando restaurant will include some of NeJame's personal touches. He says he won't serve menu items that are endangered, such as Chilean sea bass, or politically sensitive items such as foie gras or veal.
Love at first bite
NeJame, 51, has been in the restaurant and bar business for decades, involved with several ventures ranging from downtown nightclub Tabu to the Breakfast Club, a late-night restaurant adjacent to J.J. Whispers.
During a Paris vacation two years ago, NeJame and his wife fell in love with the Buddha Bar, a wildly successful restaurant and lounge. Several months later, through another deal, he met Raymond Visan, founder of the concept, and told him he wanted to bring the concept to Orlando. "Josie (his wife) said to me, 'Is Orlando ready for this?' and I told her yes, I think we are, " says NeJame.
During the past year, NeJame says he's been negotiating with Visan and finally signed a deal Feb. 13 to not only build Baby Buddha, but also to own the rights to build other locations in Texas and the eastern United States. He's paying Visan's company 5 percent of the restaurant's gross and a $300,000 fee for the rights to build additional restaurants.
Better get ready for this
In a city where late-night entertainment typically involves either firework displays or dance clubs, some experts question whether Orlando is ready for this kind of big-city sophistication.
While the city has grown more cosmopolitan in the last few years, it's still primarily a service-based economy, says Rick Van Warner, president of Orlando-based Parquet Group, a restaurant consulting firm.
" There are only a limited number of discretionary dollar to go around," he says. "Expensive decor and rent combined with an extremely fickle crowd can make it tough to consistently deliver quality food service and value over an extended period of time. "
The club most reminiscent of Little Buddha's concept is Blue Martini Inc., a South Florida-based chain that opened here nearly two years ago in the Mall at Millenia. Manager K.J. Pignatelli says his boutique lounge continues to do amazing business. "At first, pricing was a concern," he says. "But we've enjoyed some success without that being an issue."
Pignatelli says he'd welcome Baby Buddha as a neighbor, because "after the mall closes and restaurant hours are over, we need something in this area to pull people in. "
NeJame, who was once Pignatelli's boss when he was a bartender at Tabu, agrees: "I think we'd be a great complement to each other."