Very interesting article written by Rona Gindin of Winter Park Magazine. Rona interviewed Ken Hoffman of IRHC Group, asking his expertise as to why Winter Park’s once vibrant downtown area, was no longer a guaranteed success for restaurants.
by Rona Gindin
Winter Park Magazine
After more than a quarter-century of running Café de France on the southern end of Park Avenue, Dominique and German Gutierrez did something they would have pooh-poohed even a year ago: They had a neon sign installed on the door of their restaurant. “It makes me feel cheap,” admits Dominique, who has owned the French cafe with her husband since 1982. The storefronts flanking Café de France are empty, though, so the couple felt they needed the bright light to call attention to their business on a block of darkness after sunset. “I tell my customers that the day they see the sign down they’ll know Café de France is doing OK, “ the proprietor chuckles.
Attracting diners on Park Avenue is no laughing matter, of course, and it’s scary to see a restaurant that has been an anchor for 28 years taking measures to survive that the owners find distasteful. The nation’s economic downturn is an obvious reason for the Avenue’s restaurants to resort to all kinds of tricks to keep customer counts up, but in some ways, the struggle is same old, same old.
A walk north from Rollins College to the resale shop past Canton Avenue reveals a lot of longtimers, from Park Plaza Gardens with its 30-year pedigree to familiar names such as Briarpatch Restaurant, Brandywine’s Delicatessen, 310 Park South and Pannullo’s Italian Restaurant. Then there are some spots that have been any number of dining establishments over the decades, with new owners trying out the space and failing repeatedly – even when the area’s economy was robust.
Making the cut
Is the problem just that a location is bad, or is there more to it? And why do the longtimers hold out through rotating chefs and, in some cases, menu focuses and managers?
“Winter Park residents don’t want to become emotionally involved in a place with a revolving door,” theorizes Aaron Allen, whose restaurant consulting company, The Allen Group, is based in Central Florida. “They’re like jilted lovers. They don’t want to return until they know a place will be around for awhile.”
“Most of the time the problem is not location,” agrees Ken Hoffman, senior partner of the Orlando-based International Restaurant and Hospitality Consulting Group. “Winter Park is extremely local driven, and restaurants have a bigger hurdle to overcome if many restaurants have been in the same spot before. To draw area residents in, the owners have to put back into the community – get involved in local museums or boys and girls clubs, for example, so they become a neighbor and a friend.” By contrast, the Park Avenue anchors can, to some degree, live off nostalgia, he says. “People have fond memories of coming in 10 years ago with their parents or dining there with a special aunt and uncle, and they [restaurants] get credit for that,” he observes.
Not surprisingly, nostalgia isn’t enough, emphasizes Dori DeBord, economic development and community redevelopment area coordinator for the city of Winter Park. “A restaurant like Park Plaza Gardens has a sense of history, yet it has changed and shifted and moved with the times, trending its menu to be kind of hip,” she points out.
Location, location, location
Still, location is a factor. Dominique Gutierrez knows she would get more foot traffic if she had retail neighbors instead of deserted doorways, and if major Park Avenue events stretched to the southern end of the street.
And J.Michael, general manager of Park Plaza Gardens, does not discount the benefit of having sidewalk seating near several popular stores. “Park Plaza Gardens isn’t just a hole in the wall. People have to literally walk through our restaurant when they’re shopping on the Avenue,” he notes.
By contrast, he points to a restaurant space within one of the Avenue’s hidden courtyards. “God bless their hearts,” he says, “I love that little courtyard, but who knows they’re there?”
He was referring to The Bistro on Park Avenue, located in the Hidden Gardens on North Park Avenue. Owner Randy Parsons went into the beautiful yet tucked-away space two years ago aware of two reasons his business might thrive there: Bistro already had a following from its two years on the other side of Park Avenue, and many residents have fond memories of their experiences when his new space was Maison de Crepes from 1974 to 2000. “A lot of people had their first date here, or were proposed to here, so I thought I could rekindle that and generate the same kinds of things,” he says.
Strong operations – consistently well-prepared, nicely flavored food and consistently polished service – are the most vital elements to a restaurant’s success, everyone interviewed agreed. “Plenty of my clients in B and C locations are busy because people will find them if they’re good,” says consultant Hoffman. “If you’re not good, then you need a great location.”
What’s “good”? “You really have to work at it,” says JoAnne McMahon, who has owned 310 Park South for 11 years and recently expanded the dining room. “I’m here 14 hours a day, every day.” Her initial success was partly because the restaurant filled a niche, she points out. At the time of 310’s opening, no place on that part of the Avenue was family-friendly with children’s menu items or even highchairs. As for longevity, she credits treating her staff with respect. “I’m not an easy person, but I’m a fair person, and I treat my employees as well as I possibly can. Some have been with me for over 10 years.” She points out that longtime servers help business because waiters and waitresses know regular customers by name and remember what they like to eat and drink, “and everyone loves to be remembered.”
Café de France nurtures the same kind of fidelity. Either Dominique or German is nearly always on the premises, and they feel as if their regular guests are friends more than customers. “I also take good care of my staff,” Dominique emphasizes. “Guests don’t like it much when there’s change, and when the servers are the same and guests are recognized, they come back.”
The bloom’s still on at Park Plaza Gardens
They say a woman earns her wrinkles. With Park Plaza Gardens, it seems Winter Park’s grande dame has weathered quite the life herself – yet what we see today is a restaurant that’s blossoming, not blemished.
Park Plaza Gardens is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, selling original menu items such as shrimp newburg in casserole at the 1980 price of $13.25. Its history actually began earlier, under other names in different forms. The Hamilton Hotel first opened in 1922 and had an eatery called the Hamilton Grill, located where Park Plaza Gardens’ bar area is now. When Park Plaza Hotel current owners John and Sissie Spang took over in the mid-1970s, they renovated the space and opened a restaurant called The Palms, which encompassed both the current bar and dining areas. John Spang bricked the ground behind the former Hamilton Grill – it had been dirt – and a wall, and covered the space with awnings. “We had no roof,” he recalls. “It was open-air.”
A restaurant in transition
In 1980, the Spangs decided to lease the food service operation to Clement J. Ford Jr., who built the current main dining room with its signature transparent ceiling. He named it Park Plaza Gardens, and the moniker has remained unchanged even though ownership and chefs rotated over the years.
Orlando Sentinel archives are filled with articles about Park Plaza Gardens, and they are not only reviews, promotions and wedding announcements. In 1993, former chef Philippe M. Gehin wrote a letter to the editor following a mixed review letting the community know that he was not the chef whose food was said to be inconsistent. “Since my departure from Park Plaza Gardens some two months ago, the decline in culinary standards has been demonstrable,” he wrote. In 1998, the Sentinel let readers know that “Park Plaza Gardens has a new manager, though the legal fight over the restaurant continues.”
Things have clearly settled down.
Ten years ago Mary Demetree bought Park Plaza Gardens and has been at the restaurant’s helm the entire decade. Embracing the past, in 1999 – shortly after the purchase – the restaurant began a yearlong 20th anniversary celebration by inviting former chefs to host monthly dinners. It was called the Alumni Chef series. Today, J.Michael is the general manager. In the kitchen, executive chef John Tan dishes out creative interpretations of American, European and Asian dishes; he has been there for nine years. Guests settle into the gardenlike dining room’s 110 seats for meals and frequent the bar area’s 90 high-tops and sidewalk seats for casual fare – and some of the Avenue’s best people watching.
Demetree seems set on continuing to serve Central Floridians, and even indicates that she hopes to expand the space at some point. “We look forward to serving the community for another 30 years,” she says. “This is a meeting place for Winter Park residents” – and not just for business folks and ladies who lunch, she emphasizes. “This is not just a special occasion restaurant. It’s a place for everyone to have dinner.”
Demetree especially enjoys the community events, such as the 2010 Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival, during which Park Avenue is closed to cars. “It becomes like a European plaza where people can walk, shop and dine at all the restaurants in that quadrant with no cars. People had a blast. We would so like to see more of that in the future.”
Meanwhile, she takes her meals at the corner booth that was long the catbird seat of founder Clement J. Ford Jr. She sits near a plaque dedicated to her former friend. It says, “He never tattered, this man of flair; a man that mattered, a man who cared.” It seems Demetree carries that same passion.
Identify and solve problems
Doved Sexter and wife Tammy bought Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine in September 2009 and had to overcome potential customers’ unfamiliarity with the food of Turkey and had to focus on extraordinary customer service. “We’re smack dab near Central Park and get a lot of foot traffic,” Sexter says, “and our food is clearly out of the ordinary and high quality,” he says. Sexter has been tapping into what he learned as a 20-year Darden Restaurants employee to “raise the service game.” Among his tactics: holding regular server meetings, being “candid with our serving staff” that those not adept at customer service will be fired, hiring “mystery shoppers” to rate their experiences, and encouraging guests to share their opinions. “We ask guests about our service, and we try to stay open-minded to their answers,” Sexter says. “We’ve taken their feedback and changed a lot of that up to match the environment.” For example, Bosphorous now has a host or hostess and a bartender (harried servers performed both duties in the past); has the restrooms thoroughly cleaned daily; changed the type of soap in the restrooms; improved the wine list; and revamped the menu so it’s easier for Americans to understand.
Hoffman would applaud Sexter’s changes. “If you’re struggling, you have to look internally, inside your four walls, to see what the issues are,” he insists. That kind of self-improvement is most vital within a restaurant’s first 90 days. “If you don’t deliver a wow experience that’s worth what guests are paying, they will not be back,” he says. “And it doesn’t cost a lot of money to wow your guests and make them feel like they’re in the most special place in the world.”
Potential customers need to know Winter Park has a new restaurant worth trying. The Bosphorous team gets the word out in part the old-fashioned way, even if their restaurant isn’t new, only new to them: When someone stops to look at the menu that’s posted outside, an owner or host will meander out with a nicely decorated tray and offer samples of spicy and non-spicy chicken and lamb items. “We explain that Turkish cuisine has no exotic sauces or flavors, that its bases are familiar items like garlic and parsley and tomato,” Sextet says.
Brandywine’s: 38 Years and Counting
Brandywine’s Delicatessen may well be Park Avenue’s longest-running restaurant, but its beginning was rocky. New Jersey imports Jack and Joan Frankenberger began their venture as a delicatessen selling homemade items such as corned beef, she-crab soup and peanut butter by the pound, with only four tables for on-site dining. They even located the business near St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church because New Jersey delis “located across from a church just pack it in on Sunday,” says Johnny Frankenberger, one of their seven children. Johnny now runs Brandywine’s with his wife, Kathleen. His sister, Karen Jones, begins cooking at 5 a.m. daily.
Within a year of its 1972 opening, “the pink deli” (it was painted by 1984 but retains its moniker among old-timers) revamped and became a place to stop in for a sandwich or salad. “We don’t open a can,” boasts Johnny Frankenberger, who said that recipes for staples such as potato salad and cole slaw have remained unchanged over the decades. “We roast our turkey on the premises. Go into another deli that says it serves oven-roasted turkey. Ask to see their oven!” Roast beef and ham also spend time in the Brandywine’s oven, and soups are made from scratch, using a stock that begins with the leftover turkey bones.
Turkey breast – by the pound and in sandwiches – is by far the biggest seller. The Mixed Delight is also a keeper: It’s a platter of egg salad and tuna salad finger sandwiches, fresh fruit, and date nut bread with cream cheese. Dated, but delightful.
How did such a simple concept last for 38 years? “In many places a truck pulls up to deliver the food, and the restaurant sells the same thing the person down the street is selling. We give people a reason to come to our restaurant.”
Oh, there’s also the friendliness factor. Frankenberger says: “We pretty much know almost everyone who comes in.”
Spread the word
With the advent of social media, Park Avenue restaurants have a new way of getting the word out. “If someone is sitting in Luma on Park and sends out a tweet about it, that might go to her 800 followers, and some may retweet it and her post might be seen by 2,000 people,” says Hoffman. “Where else can you get that kind of public relations?”
This change in the word-of-mouth landscape is rapid-fire, adds Allen. “It took radio 30 years to get a market audience. It took TV 13 years. It took Facebook two years to get an audience of 50 million,” he says. This kind of exposure can be a positive for restaurants – or a nose dive. “It used to be that if you’re upset at a restaurant you’d tell 10 people over a few weeks,” he says. “Now you might tweet from the table and reach thousands of people. The stakes have been raised so much now that information is moving faster.”
Park Plaza Gardens may be one of the Avenue’s longtime anchors, but that does not stop the restaurant from being on top of up-to-date marketing techniques. On any given day, Facebook and Twitter followers will see posts urging them to stop in for a drink or a meal. “Green Beer flowing all day … stop by!” it posted on St. Patrick’s Day. “Come by PPG for our special Art Fest Menu!!” it urged during the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. “We have lots of meatless options for Friday Night! Reserve your table now!” it tweeted. “Maine lobster tail for $16.50 and other “original” menu features during the month of March!” it let followers know.
Restaurant owners would be foolish not to take advantage of the social media, Hoffman insists, because it’s inexpensive and it’s effective. Those unable to navigate and follow through with online efforts themselves can hire a college intern, who can work for academic credits instead of money, he suggests.
Old-fashioned marketing ideas are still effective too, of course, such as Park Plaza Gardens’ offering items from its original menu at their 30-years-ago prices. Eateries located near one another can do joint marketing, Hoffman suggests, and building relationships with people never gets old. “Host a buffet for members of local businesses or the chamber of commerce,” Hoffman recommends. “Host a social mixer for free. If your concept is higher end, invite a women’s book club to meet at your place every month. Bounce back money for the books or buy them their next book. If you think outside the box, you’ll find so many of these kinds of ways to reach out.”
Play to your strength
Restaurants should honor their strengths rather than copycat one another, adds Allen. “If everyone on the soccer field is running for the ball at the same time, they’ll find little success. If they all stay in their positions, they’ll touch the ball more.”
In the end, making a Park Avenue restaurant the one that survives, rather than the one that’s yet another in a succession of tenants in a given space, takes deep pockets, solid operations, savvy marketing and, perhaps, luck. “Restaurant start-ups are hard,” says Dori DeBord. “They’re labor intensive, they have overhead, they need investment capital for equipment and renovation. That can be tough.”
Luckily for residents, DeBord adds, the dining selection is already varied. “You can find anything you want to eat in Winter Park. You just have to come down and decide what you’re hungry for.”