Lee Karlins is the President of Caledon Concepts, a Florida-based boutique restaurant group that owns and operates Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant and Rococo Steak.
Ceviche is a 21-year-old Spanish tapas concept while Rococo Steak is a newer, chic upscale American Steakhouse.
Lee has more than 36 years of restaurant industry leadership experience with 25 years at the executive level.
Here’s an overview of Lee’s experiences that led him to where he is today:
- Graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
- Lee’s career began with Bennigans and Steak and Ale. He also worked at Outback Steakhouse for eight years.
- He joined Stonewood Grill & Tavern in Ormond Beach where he became East Coast Regional Director of Operations overseeing $30 million in annual sales. He simultaneously served as Beverage Director, where he re-designed the company’s beverage program increasing wine sales by $1 million within the first year.
- In 2014, Lee began working for Bella Brava and created 2BHospitality. He was charged with reinvigorating the Bella Brava brand, hiring a corporate Executive Chef, and streamlining operations. He was also tasked with leading the project of creating, designing, and building Stillwaters Tavern on Beach Drive.
- He oversaw the purchase and real estate deal of Moon Under Water on Beach Drive where Ceviche currently operates.
Although a quick glimpse into his career thus far, it’s evident that his experience paired with his successful track record in the hospitality industry made Lee a perfect person for an interview.
Enjoy our Q&A with Lee Karlins!
What motivated you to start a career in the hospitality industry?
I knew from an early age I didn’t want to sit behind a desk every day. It just wasn’t for me. So, at the age of 15, I started working as a busboy. After a while, I asked the chef if I could start working in the kitchen — the place I really wanted to be. He let me start as a prep cook and onion ring fry guy.
Honestly, I fell in love with the excitement and action of working in a kitchen.
Can you share a brief background of Caledon Concepts?
Caledon Concepts was founded as a boutique restaurant company in 2005. It started with Ceviche, and at one time, we had several tapas locations. Since then, the Ceviche brand has had several updates. In July 2021, we reopened a newly rebranded Ceviche in its new and current location on Beach Drive in Downtown St. Petersburg.
Ceviche is a tapas bar and Rococo Steak is an American steakhouse. What inspired you to open two restaurants that are seemingly on opposite sides of the cuisine spectrum?
Ceviche was our initial restaurant concept. In October of 2013, we opened Rococo Steak. At the time, we felt there was a need for an upscale steakhouse on the St. Pete side of the bridge.
You successfully navigated both restaurants through the pandemic. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from that time?
I think if I can use one word it would be resourceful. As a small company, we’re able to make decisions and react quickly.
In March of 2020, we also owned Moon Under Water so our team was operating three separate brands. The team and I decided to close all three restaurants and strictly do takeout food from all three brands out of Rococo’s kitchen.
Along with this, we also ran daily meal kits that customers pre-ordered and then picked up the next day. These were VERY successful, and guests loved them. We were lucky enough to be able to keep our salary managers on payroll during the shutdown.
I was most impressed with my team’s ability to all work together and be creative. These ideas from the team are what allowed us to get through the shutdown and the lessons we all learned together during COVID have only made us a stronger company and better organization.
And, just because COVID has “slowed down” doesn’t mean the challenges have ended.
Our industry is facing the most challenging time because of the increased costs across the board including labor. If you’re not resourceful and adapting, you won’t make it.
If you could only pick one menu item from each of your two restaurants, what would you choose?
At Ceviche, I would choose our Branzino with capers, olives, feta, lemon, and extra virgin olive oil.
At Rococo, our 45-day Dry Aged Porterhouse from Allen Brothers is a must. Allen Brothers’ steaks are hand-selected and aged with their meticulous processes.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given so far in your career?
Surround yourself with people better than you. When you have them, do everything you can to keep them.
Any plans to expand in the Tampa area?
We’re currently aggressively searching in Tampa, Sarasota, Orlando, and St Armand’s Circle.
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