Fran Casciato creates a healthy, happy dining oasis at the Lemon Tree Kitchen.
Change is the name of the game in the restaurant industry. Take Louies Modern — once a popular upscale bistro on Palm Avenue. One day it wasn’t there anymore. Today, a new restaurant called Lemon Tree Kitchen has taken its place. It’s another Tableseide Restaurant Group enterprise, but the similarity ends there. The difference is like night and day.
This reinvented restaurant is the brainchild of Fran Casciato, TRG’s director of operations. It flows out of his personal commitment to healthy living.
Two years ago, Casciato, who has worked with TRG for a decade, decided to reinvent himself. “I started exercising every day, and began to look at food as fuel, not a reward for good behavior.” Thanks to his commitment to mindful eating, he lost 100 pounds. Casciato also had a revelation. When he dined out with friends, they found few healthy dining options at area restaurants. He realized that Tableseide could fill that gap.
Casciato pitched the idea to TRG CEO Joe Seidensticker and the rest of the executive team. “We’d already been planning to rebrand Louies Modern. How could we continue to move our company’s concepts in a healthier direction and show our care for our guests more clearly? Joe loved the concept and gave the go-ahead for the rebranding.”
That was the good news. The not-so-good news?
“We had a little over a week to rebrand, retrain, remodel, rename and reinvent the menu,” says Casciato.
Casciato and his team quickly got to work. Eight-and-a-half days later, the job was done. Louies Modern became the sparkling new Lemon Tree Kitchen.
The new restaurant concentrates on healthy, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients. Its prices won’t break the bank and its menu caters to diets of all descriptions. Diners will find plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, along with dairy-free and gluten-free fare. You can add pan-seared tofu to your vegan kale Caesar or opt for the “Impossible Vegan” burger. But carnivores can also dig into the “Louies Tribute” burger or a roasted half-chicken, or steak frites.
“We’re not elitist or exclusive,” says Casciato. “Vegetarians, vegans, carnivores and omnivores are all welcome.”
The menu also encourages a mix-and-match approach to dining. “It reflects the way people dine today. There’s more sharing — more of a ‘let’s try this’ attitude,” says Casciato.
According to Casciato, the new menu reflects another cultural shift. “Growing up in the 1960s, my experience was: “This is dinner. Eat all of it in the order it’s given. Make sure to clean your plate.” Nowadays we’ll have four family members with four separate diets. So, we give guests the opportunity to custom-create their own meals.”
The Lemon Tree’s crowd pleasers include its signature wood-grilled pizzas, which start with a house-made yeast. (Want it gluten-free? Substitute cauliflower crust.) Other favorites include several bowls (the vegetable pho will supposedly cure anything from the flu to the blues); the grilled veggie sandwich (with eggplant, zucchini, roasted red peppers and fontina cheese on griddled farm bread); and the portobello carpaccio that sweetens the palate with pickled fennel (meat eaters can opt for the real thing — seared beef with horseradish crema).
Casciato takes food and the dining experience seriously while taking himself lightly. He encourages a similar attitude in his staff. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “Servers can come off as elitist experts, and that’s often intimidating to guests. We encourage a sense of humor and humility.”
For Casciato, establishing relationships is the right thing to do.
For instance, when guests first sit down, it’s up to the server to create a warm bond -— instantly.
“We welcome our guests by asking them where they’re from. That’s a lot more friendly than bombarding them with a list of specials. ‘Where do you live?’ It’s a very human question, and it makes a connection.”
When diners place their orders, the server also puts a condiment caddy on the table. It helps alleviate the worry of the wait familiar in many Sarasota eateries. Casciato is constantly fine-tuning the system to ensure every guest feels seen, heard and cared for.
Along with the changes in menu and serving methods, Casciato’s team also transformed the space itself. The new décor is light-filled, cheerful and bright, adorned with, yes, lemon trees.
“We’ve brought down barriers and opened ourselves up — literally,” says Casciato. “These seem like small details, but they represent a 180-degree turn from the old-school, heavy-handed style of restaurant management. Joe and I both grew up in that style, and we’ve had to totally change our thinking.”
Casciato says the changes aren’t arbitrary. They all reflect a nurturing attitude — and an equal respect for the earth and the human race. He traces that core philosophy to his original mentor at Tableseide — the company’s founder, Stephen Seidensticker, who died in 2018.
“He was incredibly altruistic,” Casciato says. “I want to honor Steve’s legacy and develop a shoulder-to-shoulder relationship with our hard-working team. When we support our employees and vendors, it transforms the dining experience. The human factor is an intangible thing. But it makes all the difference. When a dish is created with love, you can taste it.”
Update on TRG: Representatives say the renovated Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie at 1917 S. Osprey Ave. should be open by the end of May and the new Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie in Lakewood Ranch should be open by the end of August.
Correction: The print edition of this story incorrectly named the restaurants mentioned at the end of the story.