Sidelined by coronavirus, Tampa chef Chris Ponte is forging ahead with his new restaurant in Midtown

By  – Senior Reporter, Tampa Bay Business Journal

The novel coronavirus outbreak has taken chefs like Chris Ponte almost entirely out of their element, shuttering their dining rooms and forcing them to fulfill takeout orders or close altogether.

Ponte, one of Tampa Bay’s premier chefs and a James Beard nominee, owns the type of restaurants that have been hit hardest by the global pandemic: fine dining. Olivia in South Tampa and Cafe Ponte in Largo shuttered in mid-March and are closed indefinitely; On Swann, where he is a partner, reopens Thursday for takeout orders.

In the weeks since coronavirus darkened his dining rooms, Ponte has been working on his latest concept: a 5,000-square-foot, yet-to-be named restaurant in Midtown Tampa. He’s also tackling some maintenance issues at Olivia, an Italian restaurant, that were a challenge when the restaurant was open.

He figured he and his wife would be traveling this spring. Olivia, with startup costs of around $4 million, opened around Thanksgiving. Ponte expected a lull between getting Olivia up and running and diving full-force into the Midtown restaurant.

But in the face of coronavirus, he’s trying to use the found time as wisely as he can.

“I’ve been using the time to get us more organized,” Ponte said, “with the new restaurant — we’ve been doing the floor plans for that, and writing the menus for that.”

At Olivia, only a few managers remain from a head count that was over 100 pre-pandemic. Those employees are working on summer menus — Ponte hopes they’ll reopen in time — and overseeing the replacement of floor tiles and the repaving of the parking lot.

Ponte doesn’t have investors in Olivia or the forthcoming restaurant; his partners are his wife, Michelle, and his stepson, JT Mahoney. He said his lender, First Home Bank, has been easy to work with.

Ponte says he’s told that construction on the new Midtown restaurant is right on track. A spokeswoman for the developer of Midtown, New York-based Bromley Cos., did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

“It’s going to be like Cafe Ponte, but done a little more modern, with some more steaks,” Ponte said. “It’s going to be everything we want, with some white tablecloths and a large bar area.”

He said he’s focused on the future, especially with Super Bowl LV on the horizon. Midtown is just two miles from Raymond James Stadium.

“What’s good for the Tampa Bay area is that we have the Super Bowl coming in, so that’s a huge blessing for us coming out of this,” Ponte said. “That will help us a lot.

“So you know, we’re just trying to get ahead of the game.”