CLEARWATER BEACH — For years, Michael "Frenchy" Preston kept his eye on the '60s-era Olympia Motel next door to his office. A real period fixer-upper.
Then came inspiration: a stylish cable TV drama soaked in 1960s society and culture. "It seemed the time was right with Mad Men getting so big," Preston said. It also didn't hurt that the 15-room Olympia and an adjacent property were available for just $1.6 million in a bank sale.
The owner of four Clearwater Beach seafood restaurants that carry his nickname, Preston sank another half-million dollars into renovations and quietly opened Frenchy's Oasis Motel last fall. His style is more Big Lebowski than Dan Draper, Mad Men's hard-drinking, chain-smoking lead character.
Business so far has been spotty. Christmas and New Year's Eve were sellouts. On a recent Friday in the heart of tourist season, a Canadian couple rented the only occupied room.
Preston, 59, says he hasn't seriously marketed the Oasis. The motel's website just went live a couple of weeks ago. Preston paid cash for the motel, so there's no debt to service.
"Next year, we'll talk occupancy rate," he says. "This year, we'll just let it be what it is."
The remodeled Oasis looks like a fun place. Peach, aqua blue and lime hues color the walls. Wavy white railings suggest ocean waves. Blue neon lights up the roof line at night. Guest rooms have '60s-style starburst clocks and polished terrazzo floors.
The motel marks the latest of Preston's business ventures.
Frenchy's Seafood processes the catch from local boats for his restaurants. Frenchy's Stone Crab ships crab by air to restaurants around the country. He also owns part of Blue Skyz Cafe on Clearwater Beach, the website clearwaterbeach.com and the four Frenchy's restaurants.
Preston grew up in Quebec, learning French from his mother. At 12, he moved with his family to Ann Arbor, Mich. Kids there gave him the nickname "Frenchy."
After high school, he took some college classes and worked different jobs. In February 1974, Preston visited friends in Clearwater and decided to stay.
He worked various entry-level restaurant jobs, working his way to front-end manager at the Hungry Fisherman in Indian Shores.
In 1981, he put together more than $12,000 to start his first place, Frenchy's Cafe, at the site of a failed Italian restaurant on Clearwater Beach. It was a dump with ugly green carpet and red vinyl seats. Cottages next door were overgrown with vegetation and falling down. But Preston wasn't selling atmosphere.
"The concept was beer and shrimp and fresh seafood," he said. The original Frenchy's on Baymont Street — with a long bar, four booths inside and four tables on the deck — still dishes out grouper sandwiches at the same location.
Clearwater Beach is bouncing back from two tough years, Preston says. The sour economy spoiled 2009, with his businesses down about 20 percent.
Last year started poorly as record cold weather kept tourists off the beach into March. Just as business rebounded, news reports about the BP oil spill scared off out-of-state visitors.
On a toasty afternoon this month, Preston beamed from behind the wheel of his Mercedes coupe at crowds of spring breakers cruising the sidewalks. "For two weeks now, we've had perfect weather," he said. "It's been a gift."
He likes the motel business — it's a lot less stressful than restaurants — and isn't sweating how things go day to day.
"We're learning as we go," Preston said. "We're business operators. I don't think it's anything outside our range."
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.