2017-08-10 / Business News


Independent restaurateurs defy odds of longevity in the industry

The Veranda, one of the oldest restaurants in Fort Myers, “is unique in so many ways,” says owner Paul Peden. 
COURTESY PHOTOS The Veranda, one of the oldest restaurants in Fort Myers, “is unique in so many ways,” says owner Paul Peden. COURTESY PHOTOS FICKLE FLORIDA, WHERE RESTAURANTS COME AND GO — sometimes overnight.

The failure rate of restaurants nationwide, once quoted as up to 90 percent within a year of opening, has been debunked by recent analysts showing the figure is only about 29 percent.

Challenges abound for all those in the industry — food trends, demographic changes, and the economy’s wild ride among them.

Then there’s labor — a constant problem in a tourist- and seasonal-market state. Everyone is trying to snag the small marketplace of pro servers and cooks.

But in South Florida, there are those restaurateurs who have made it — and have opened multiple eateries spread out in several counties. These are largely the independents, and generations of families in some cases, who have a handful of concepts that are successful on all levels.

What made them so?

We talked to several who provided insight into their processes. Solid work ethics, business acumen, market foresight, and putting ego aside to learn from the best of the competition are cited. Not withstanding, there was some luck involved, too.

Paul Peden

Sometimes, you have to leave a good thing alone.

The Veranda is one of the oldest restaurant in Fort Myers and is owned by Paul Peden, who knows a great restaurant concept; he’s operated seven or eight over the years.

But the dowager of fine dining is a “one-of-a-kind operation. Unique in so many ways,” he says. Yet it continues to evolve. “Whatever the guest wants it to be, we want to accommodate and change for them.”

In that regard, it will never be duplicated, he said.

PEDEN PEDEN “At one time or another over 40 years, we had steakhouses, seafood, Italian, Mexican restaurants. We dipped our toe in all kinds of concepts. What we found is it’s a lot harder to run seven different concepts than two.”

He’s put his focus on Rib City, a barbecue spot he has turned into a franchise, with 28 of the full-serve ’cue restaurants in Florida and six other states.

Rib City is easily duplicated. “You can zero in. You know the operating costs, and if you manage labor costs, you can do comparables between stores,” he said. It’s the same physical setup, mostly, and the same menu, and same expectations for sales.

But even in a same-same restaurant, you have to be passionate about it. “You gotta do it. Walk the walk and talk the talk. You have to be a personality that doesn’t like confrontation. You have to be prepared for it on a constant basis.”

The Veranda is in downtown Fort Myers. The Veranda is in downtown Fort Myers. He keeps up with the trends in technology that he says are changing the business drastically.

“We see a huge growth in home delivery and casual fast-service. Panera Bread: you don’t deal with a service person — You order, get your food and sit down.”

The end of full-service restaurants won’t be soon, but more restaurants will be using this model to eliminate labor costs, he said.

A new generation of diners doesn’t mind the self-serve or ordering by screen, he says.

“Millennials want it now. Everybody has a phone or tablet in their hand. That’s how they do business and order everything today. If you want to be part of that market, you have to get in it.”

Home delivery, and self-service are the models he is going to use for a new concept he hopes to launch in the next six months: Rib City Q.

COURTESY PHOTOS COURTESY PHOTOS “The Q is for ‘quick.’ You’ll order, get your food and sit. No servers so there’s faster table turnover.” No waiting on beverages, the food, or check, and diners will eat and leave.

There will be a delivery component to this one, too, he said, if the neighborhood warrants it and it’s logical.

It’s easily duplicated as a franchise, and there are none yet jumping on it. Everyone loves barbecue, he said, and there’s a place for it everywhere.

As to other concepts, he’s not ruling them out, but the focus is on Rib City and Rib City Q.

He sums it up: “There’s no finish line in the restaurant business. You keep working at it.”

Richard Gonzmart

His name is legend in Florida’s restaurant history. With the iconic 112-year-old Columbia Restaurant to claim as a fifth-generation heritage, Richard Gonzmart could sit on some laurels a long while.

GONZMART GONZMART Yet the 64-yearold, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group of 13 restaurants, rises in the wee hours of the morning daily, trolling the internet, churning ideas for his next projects. He has seven in the works.

He’s a champion of Tampa and its future. He’s a philanthropist and hard worker who supports hard workers. He’s a cancer survivor driven to make each day count.

It’s a mad ADD drive he admits to that doesn’t stop, and it’s the cornerstone to his restaurants’ successes.

Talking feverishly, he said, “The key is to be passionate about the business. You have to be educated, and understand what it takes to run a restaurant, and what the guest expects.”

MAX MAX As a restaurant owner, you must also reinvent yourself, he said.

For the block-long Columbia in Ybor City, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Florida, that means reinvesting in it to the tune of $25 million. It’s the largest Spanish restaurant in the U.S., with 1,700 seats spread out among its 15 dining rooms and courtyard.

“We put a lot into restoring it. It’s a lot of work to maintain,” he said.

Meanwhile, he continues to fire off new concepts.

Two of his latest are bold successes, both with a history factor.

Ulele Restaurant and Brewery in Tampa opened three years ago on the Hillsborough River in a building used by the city’s Water Works years ago. The brewery is a nod to Mr. Gonzmart’s great-grandfather’s saloon.

A giant round barbacoa grill is the centerpiece of the restaurant, in homage to the Arawak Native Americans who lived here in the 1500s. Gulf Coast oysters and steaks from a single Florida rancher are cooked over its fire.

Max’s Harvest focuses on farm-to-table fare. 
COURTESY PHOTO Max’s Harvest focuses on farm-to-table fare. COURTESY PHOTO “We created something unique. It surpassed my expectations,” he said.

Then there’s Goody Goody. Mr. Gonzmart fondly remembers the famous drive-in that closed in 2005 after an 80-year run.

“It was a part of Tampa’s identity, it’s who we were,” he said. It was the city’s first drive-in restaurant, and was an informal value meal for many. Serving multi-generations of families, it plays into the memories of longtime residents and visitors alike.

The restaurant group revived it in 2016, and opened an outpost in the airport this year. The former owner praised him for taking such good care of the brand.

He becomes even more animated talking about the project due next year in Ybor City. It’s a Sicilian restaurant, Santo Stefano Quisquina, born out of the heritage recipes from a small Italian village,

“The (immigrant) families that came to Ybor City, a lot were from Spain and Cuba, but many were from Italy. Sixty percent of those came from one tiny Sicilian village: Santo Stefano di Camastra,” he said.

The restaurant will capture the essence of the Old World cooking style. “Everything has to be made from scratch, just like it was in the old days. We don’t need a freezer.” All the foods will be fresh, he said.

He’s had failures, he said. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Columbia went through some hard times. Cigar factories in Ybor City shut down and people moved away.

Troubles with a financial officer led to his firing, and Mr. Gonzmart taking over the management of Mangari, an Italian concept that didn’t last,

The company failed again in West Palm Beach with a Columbia, though he said he was warned against the fickle market beforehand.

“We were being courted by the company who ran CityPlace,” he said. Parking was but one issue. After a year that saw struggles, a new landlord didn’t want to have an independent restaurant owner in the huge space along Okeechobee Boulevard.

“We’ll negotiate out of it,” he told the landlord. A national chain was brought in. It soon went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, he said.

“The Lord watched out for me.”

His says “Never, never give up. There’s always a solution.”

In this business, he said, “You have to trust your instincts. When I haven’t followed up, I regretted it. If I didn’t do it, I regret it.”

Dennis Max

The man who brought the exploding California food movement to Florida in the 1980s, a concept now labeled as “farm-to-table,” is still at it.

“I’m 72 and I feel like 45,” says Dennis Max.

After opening 41 or so restaurants in a variety of concepts — he says he’s lost count — Mr. Max is still coming up with fresh ideas, while capitalizing on long-ago successes.

The Boca Raton-based restaurateur started his professional restaurant career in the 1970s as manager in an up-and-coming chain of railroad-themed steakhouses, Victoria Station. “They were going to grow rapidly,” he said, and he wanted in on that ground floor.

As a regional manager, he moved to South Florida to open some of their restaurants here.

Along the way, he made friends with a coworker, Burt Rapoport, who would become his partner in several restaurants, including his first, a casual Mexican in Fort Lauderdale called Carlos & Pepe’s Cantina.

In the beginning, he says, “I kind of just wanted to do one restaurant. But I was always groomed to do this many.”

Not long after came his foray into fine dining, with Café Max in Pompano Beach.

Its strip mall placement was “a terrible location,” he said.

But the unique California-style, farm-fresh menu, plus a wine list gleaned from domestic vineyards hot at the time drew modern diners from as far away as Miami.

“The power of the concept was so strong, people came anyway. We were the first ones in the Southeast (U.S.) to do it,” he said. “Nobody down here was doing anything like it.”

Guests urged him to open in Miami, and he opened Max’s Place in Sunny Isles, another success. His star chef, Mark Militello, would go on to become a restaurateur in his own right.

Different concepts followed, always ahead of the dining curve. The Dennis Max name became gold in the business.

His Italian concepts — Prezzo, opened with Mr. Rapoport, having the first wood-burning oven around, and Maxaluna in Boca Raton — were wildly successful.

Prezzo will have a rebirth this fall in Park Plaza in Boca Raton — with customer anticipation already high from its fans of the past.

Not all his ideas were hits, however. Max’s Grille, a spot that has been a lunch staple since it opened in Boca Raton’s Mizner Park more than 25 years ago, was tried in Orlando’s Celebration, but never achieved the success of Boca’s.

Others, like Max’s Water’s Edge in Manalapan, and Max’s Coffee Shop and The Mexican in Boca Raton, and the recently shuttered Social House in Delray, a cocktail-forward concept, didn’t find audiences in their respective markets.

The Social House was, he says, “a labor of love.” He was surprised it didn’t make it. “I thought it was a really good job. Sometimes you make good moves. The market… it wasn’t what they wanted.”

His eye is on fresh foods in a casual, quick-serve setting now.

“Diners today are busy and on the run. But young people expect fresh foods. You’ve got Whole Foods Market and Amazon now delivering fresh food to their homes.”

He cites Bolay, the quick-fresh concept begun by Outback founder Tim Gannon with his son, Chris, as the new menus in his next iteration.

“There’s room in that area” for his own concept that can be multiple units, he believes.

Already successful with Max’s Harvest, a farm-to-table restaurant in Delray’s Pineapple Grove, he knows the food will work with today’s diners.

The challenge is finding the right markets for them and getting the right team in place.

“The secret to success is reading the audience,” he says. “The smartest thing, though, is to always have really good people.” ¦

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