The economic downturn has hit Beef 'O'Brady's in St. Petersburg's Northeast Shopping Center. The restaurant's landlord, Publix Super Markets, has filed a lawsuit to evict the franchise for failing to pay rent.
James Tomko, owner of the restaurant, said he has been experiencing difficult financial times and probably will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The restaurant will remain open, he said.
"We're planning to restructure,'' he said.
Publix Super Markets alleges that the restaurant owes more than $21,000 in back rent. The lawsuit names T&T Beefs Inc., which does business as Beef 'O'Brady's, and franchise owners James Edward Tomko Jr. and Kimberly Earl Tomko.
Nick Vojnovic, president of the Beef 'O'Brady's chain, which has headquarters in Tampa, said James Tomko is the third owner of the Northeast Shopping Center franchise and had done well until recently.
"He has been under financial pressure,'' Vojnovic said. "For Beef's, the summers are the slowest time. We're hoping that we can kind of work through it and we can continue operating.''
Vojnovic said his corporate office would try to help Tomko by letting him defer royalty payments. He cited "tremendous pressure'' brought about by minimum- wage increases and higher food and fuel costs.
"It's the most difficult restaurant operating environment in the last 30 years. ... Sales are off,'' he said.
Vojnovic added that Florida, where the chain has 140 of its 259 restaurants, has been an even tougher environment for all restaurants because of the collapse of the housing market.
Tomko said he took over the store in the Northeast Shopping Center, at 37th Avenue N between Third and First streets, in June last year. He has spent large sums renovating the place and buying equipment, he said.
"We had to replace a lot of things,'' he said.
"We tried to work with Publix, and we're hoping to emerge from this stronger. We're not going to give up. Our sales have actually increased in this market, and part of that is cleaning up the facility. It's just a matter of trying to control costs in a way to become profitable.''
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten declined to comment on the case, saying the grocery chain considers the status of leases confidential.
Court documents show that the lease for the restaurant, at 226 37th Ave. N, was signed on Feb. 10, 2006. The Tomkos signed their agreement as guarantors on May 30, 2007.
Beef 'O'Brady's occupies 3,600 square feet in a section that was the home of Woolworth's before the shopping center was renovated in the late 1990s. Publix has been in the Northeast Shopping Center since 1959.
Beef 'O'Brady's has 55 restaurants in the Tampa Bay area and plans to open one at the TradeWinds Island Grand Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach this fall, Vojnovic said. The chain recently opened a restaurant at the University of South Florida in Tampa and another at a Best Western in Brandon. The strategy is to open restaurants at nontraditional sites, Vojnovic said. He added that Beef 'O'Brady's plans to open 50 restaurants this year.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.