By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Having been in the restaurant business for 30 years, David Steele has had many stops – about 15 by his reckoning.
But Tupelo has always held a special place in his heart. In fact, his 10-year stay that ended in 2005 has been the longest stint in his career.
And he’s back.
“We missed Tupelo for sure,” he said. “It’s almost like we never left.”
For those who don’t know who Steele is, he’s the guy for whom the city has named a day – May 11 – to honor his contributions to the community. While he was a managing partner for Outback Steakhouse, he helped raise more than $200,000 for area charities.
In his new role, Steele has partnered with Mike Greer and Clyde Whitaker with Contemporary Restaurants in Tupelo. The company owns the Old Venice Pizza restaurants in Tupelo and Starkville, as well as the Varsity Grille restaurants in Oxford and Tupelo.
Steele, who returned to Tupelo about two months ago, oversees the restaurants’ operations.
“Old Venice is very popular and has done extremely well, both in Starkville and Tupelo,” he said. “The Varsity Grilles represent a pretty good challenge.”
The Oxford Varsity Grille has a sports-bar atmosphere that fits in well with a university town, Steele said.
But the Varsity Grille in Tupelo was initially marketed differently. That location, in the former Ruby Tuesday’s in The Mall at Barnes Crossing, was billed as a contemporary, upscale restaurant with decor and a menu to match.
That, Steele said, didn’t fit with the name or the venue.
“You’re not going to get a shopper spending $80 on a pair of shoes spend $80 on a meal at a restaurant at the mall,” he said.
To remedy that disconnect and to clarify the Varsity Grille’s identity, Steele was brought in to get the restaurant in Tupelo back on course.
“It’s going to be what it should have been in the first place,” he said.
While the Tupelo location won’t quite match the atmosphere of the Oxford restaurant, it will be far more laid-back and sports-fan friendly. The more than one dozen flat-screen TVs will remain. But the menu has been extensively reworked.
Burgers, wings, sandwiches and salads dot the menu, which Steele said still is being tweaked.
Exotic seafood won’t be shipped in, but a local butcher is sending hand-patted Angus burgers to Varsity Grille.
“We’re getting the meat from the butcher’s shop inside the Piggly Wiggly in Saltillo,” Steele said.
Inside the restaurant, the writing is on the wall – literally.
Employees have been asked to leave messages and sign their names, as they do in the Oxford restaurant. Diners will be invited to do the same.
It’s all an effort to make Varsity Grille in Tupelo a more casual restaurant.
Jeff Snyder, the general manager of the mall, welcomed the reinvention.
“I think it’s really exciting to get somebody with the experience and knowledge that David Steele brings,” he said. “He’s been a great citizen and friend to the community, and we’re delighted to have him back in Tupelo.”
Successful track record
With a resume like Steele’s, it’s no wonder he’s been asked to work his magic again in Tupelo.
During his tenure with Outback, he was named managing partner of the year three times.
In 2005, Steele, his wife and their four children left to run an Outback on the Gulf Coast. Soon after, Hurricane Katrina hit. Within four days, the Outback was up and running again, albeit on a limited schedule.
Two years later, he left Outback to become a franchisee with Sweet Peppers Deli.
“It’s a great company, and I’ve known Bernard and John Bean for a long time,” he said. The Beans are co-owners of Sweet Peppers, which is part of their Eat With Us chain that has Harvey’s, Fairpark Grill and Park Heights.
Steele opened a Sweet Peppers in Cullman, Ala., in early 2007 and later established a second location in the state. In September 2008, he was named Franchisee of the Year for Sweet Peppers.
He still owns the restaurants, in addition to his new duties with Contemporary Restaurants.
“I’m sure Bernard would like to see me spending some more time back there,” Steele said with a chuckle.
But Steele’s concentrating on getting Varsity Grille in Tupelo back on its feet.
“Old Venice almost takes care of itself,” he said. “We’re going to work on a few things. For Varsity, we’re looking at the transformation to be complete by March or April. After that, it’s pretty simple.”
Steele said that community involvement remains a big part of the plan.
“We will do a lot of community stuff,” he said. “It’s good business. We’ll work with different groups to help them, and get them familiar with what we’re doing.”
Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or firstname.lastname@example.org.