Operators at Fla. show upbeat, less worried about smoking vote

Operators at Fla. show upbeat, less worried about smoking vote – 2002 Florida Restaurant Show

Jack Hayes

ORLANDO, FLA. — Present in greater numbers and with a more upbeat outlook than a year ago, operators at the 2002 Florida Restaurant Show expressed optimism about a return of strong fall and winter tourism, which many said never fully materialized last year after the Sept. 11 tragedies.

While many tourist-dependent restaurateurs in Florida’s central and southern sections remain in a holding posture as they await the return of seasonal “snowbirds” from the Northeast and Midwest, most think the state could be on the verge of a turnaround.

At the same time, however, Florida restaurateurs are trying to gauge what impact the threatened military action against Iraq still might exert on Wall Street, the overall economy, and the fate of consumer spending and tourism.

And, in light of polls predicting passage of a November ballot measure that would prohibit smoking in enclosed workplaces statewide, many Florida show attendees said they anticipate only a brief impact on their businesses.

“It’s been a bad year, and I’m looking forward to those snowbirds,” said Angelo Manco, who operates Angelo’s in Lake County, Fla.

“My biggest concern is whether the president is going to take us into a war with Iraq,” said Jude Ferreira, hospitality-management professor at the Johnson & Wales University’s North Miami campus. “What we’re doing here is scaring the stock market. If this spurs a boycott by the Arab and Muslim world, the economy could go into a nosedive.

“However, if the U.S. can avoid the threatened conflict, then the beginnings of turnaround that are now visible will lead to healthy business improvement,” he added.

“We’re all waiting for November, but with war drums beating, it’s a worry,” Ferreira said. “Some Miami hotels have put a freeze on hiring, others are anticipating a good season and then there are some that just are uncertain.”

Meanwhile, the return of strong convention business this summer is expected to hold through fall as Japanese, South American and European tourists and business travelers find their way back to Orlando and South Florida.

“Our convention traffic is up 20 percent,” said former medical engineer Adil Elias, who spent $5 million to develop Ronnie’s in Orlando 18 months ago as an upscale steakhouse-chain prototype. “We have strong convention bookings through next July.”

Opening at the onset of the business slowdown that began in spring 2001, Ronnie’s is averaging 1,500 dinner covers weekly at an average check of $65.

Nevertheless, when convention business plummeted in the aftermath of last year’s Sept.11 attacks, after having weakened gradually since Ronnie’s debut earlier in the year, Elias adapted by building an 80-seat outside bar and dinner deck that feature live music seven days a week. That venue now is driving another 1,000 weekly covers at $35 per person, enough to lift the restaurant’s total gross annual revenue to its current level of about $5 million.

Two other concept adjustments since Ronnie’s launch included placing an inside piano bar at the front of the restaurant and a 16-person chef’s table between the main “Rose Garden” dining room and the kitchen. Including banquet space, Ronnie’s now seats a total of 450 guests.

“In two years’ time we’ll be doing $8 million at this location,” Elias predicted, adding that the Ronnie’s brand will have grown to four units by the fall of 2004. Site work is under way now for a second Ronnie’s in nearby Altamonte Springs, Fla. The third and fourth units would follow in Miami Beach and Atlanta, he said.

Another expansion-minded Florida operator is Larry Thompson, founder of six-unit Lazy Flamingo USA Inc., which operates four budget-priced, casual-theme Lazy Flamingo units as well as Sunset Grill and Crazy Gator’s at Gulf Coast locations.

“We’re negotiating now for site No. 7,” Thompson said. “We find that as things get tighter, we do better because we’re operating with a check average of $9.50 and are surrounded by concepts where the per-person average is $25.”

Thompson said his aim is to open five more units in 2003.

Such operator enthusiasm was echoed at the Florida show in a number of supplier booths.

A Miami-based broad-line foodservice distributor serving Dade, Broward and Monroe Counties said that its September business had turned around significantly.

“The past three weeks have been tremendous across the board, and we just hope it stays that way,” the wholesaler said.

“We’ve been very enthusiastic about the way our key restaurant shows have gone this year — from the spring show in New York to the California show just a month ago to the early fall Florida Restaurant Show,” said Steve Kalman, foodservice industry vice president for Reed Exhibitions. The arm of London-based Reed Elseveir marked its second year as manager of the Florida Restaurant Association-sponsored event.

“We’ve had growth in attendance across the board — an indication that chefs, managers, owners, and corporate buyers are getting back to the market, Kalman said. Citing attendance figures of the show’s first two days, Kalman said the final traffic tally would exceed the 15,000 show attendees recorded last year.

Meanwhile, Florida’s continually growing base of retired residents is driving expansion among contract-foodservice operators in the senior-assisted-living segment, according to Dan Ruiz, executive chef at Heron House in Sarasota.

“There are 300 assisted-living facilities in Pinellas County [the greater Tampa, Fla., market] alone, and all or most of them are doing well,” said Ruiz, who was equipment shopping at the show for two new Heron House units under construction in Fort Myers and Naples.

Operators sharing thoughts about the nonsmoking ballot measure, Amendment 6, generally said they believe that the issue no longer is a serious threat to business. Exceptions are operators of some upscale establishments that don’t have outside accommodations for guests who smoke.

“For five years the trend has been toward non-smoking, and as a matter of fact, we’re a nonsmoking venue, but I think it’s going to be hard for some restaurants that don’t have outside seating for guests who still want to smoke,” said Tony Granaghan, executive chef at Hamlet Country Club in Delray Beach.

Jim Fowler, kitchen manager at the 120-seat Sand Bar on Longboat Key, said half or more of his clientele are smokers who sit outside.

“Our clientele are mostly regulars, and the smoking section always fills up first,” Fowler explained.

“The bar side will definitely feel the impact, and it will be interesting to see for how long,” said Scott Wallace, food and beverage director at the Wyndham West Shore in Tampa. “We went to nonsmoking in our restaurants and other dining areas but not in our bar,” he said. “So I do have one area that will be affected.”

Mark Dominick, executive chef at Mizner Country Club, also in Delray Beach, said his members became temporarily divisive three years ago when a club vote was taken on the smoking question, but there are no longer any problems related to smoking.

Eric Waltz, food and beverage manager at the Walt Disney World Dolphin and Swan convention hotels in Lake Buena Vista, confirmed that all dining areas in Disney World are nonsmoking, while lounges are currently open for smoking.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group