Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Business

Goodbye Fortunatos, Crowley's; hello artisanal pizza and millennials

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ST. PETERSBURG — The facades of some of the last stalwarts of the 200 block on Central Avenue are papered and boarded as new owners continue to redevelop the area.

Josh Cameron, owner of the Oyster Bar, which he bought and relaunched in 2013, bought Fortunato's Italian Market two years ago and Lucky Dill earlier this year. Josh Connell, owner of Five Bucks Drinkery, bought Crowley's earlier this year.

Fortunato's is currently closed for renovations and will reopen as the Crafty Squirrel by December — a high-volume tap house that serves artisanal pizza.

Cameron said he saw an opportunity to better use the space at Fortunato's as more college students, millennials and young professionals frequent the block nightly.

"You hear all the old stories of what St. Pete used to be," he said. "That no one would frequent downtown. Every business on Central Avenue has received a facelift. It's not rundown anymore. . . . We want to cater to a slightly younger audience to capture and complement the block."

Everything will be cooked in the 900-degree pizza ovens and Cameron hopes to install more than 40 televisions and offer craft beer.

But the lunch crowd won't be forgotten, he said, and customers can call ahead or order online to pick up food from a bar that will open onto Central.

"Rent prices are going up and to run a quick-service restaurant on this street is getting harder and harder," said Oyster Bar manager Karen Sexton. "A lot of people downtown have concern about losing Fortunato's. Their choices for less expensive food are reducing, but for the lunch crowd he's definitely trying to keep prices down."

Cameron said he doesn't have immediate plans to make changes at Lucky Dill, but hopes to begin by this time next year. He said he envisions a local brewery coming to the block.

Connell, who bought Crowley's about three months ago, said he isn't in a rush to open a new bar in its place.

"Once you open it, you don't get to do it again," he said.

The new bar will have a larger liquor selection than Five Bucks, he said, but will still be affordable. He's currently making notes on what's already been done in St. Petersburg so he can do something different.

"I don't like stuffy bars, so I'm not going to open a bar to sit around and have educated conversations to have deep thoughts."

Connell said he immediately saw the value of owning a second spot on the block.

"Man from 2008 to now, this is a whole 'nother world," he said. "Downtown St. Pete has made such an evolution of change. The crowd was different, the volume of people was different. I'm a bar guy, so I'm glad to see we have more good bars. It's becoming like what you see in other cities. St. Pete has the cool stuff that other big cities have."

The original business plan written for Five Bucks is irrelevant today, he said. In 2008, it struggled to seat 10 people for lunch. In August, it did a cover lunch for 108.

"We could've never forecasted if we looked into a crystal ball how much business we're doing," Connell said.

Aside from hiring more staff to keep up with volume and learning how to run a bigger business, hiring a "CFO- type individual," Connell said the principles of running a successful business don't change, despite what the block has seen.

"The adaptation has been how do we do this faster," he said. "I don't have to deal with different demographics differently. You serve amazing food at a really good deal and you do it really fast and you do it really friendly, then it doesn't matter if you're a senior citizen or a millennial or black or white or blue or green, then you don't have to adapt. You do what you do."

Recent years have witnessed changes to the block. In 2015, Caddy's replaced Central Avenue Sports Bar, which was once Calypso Rum Bar and Island Grill. Before that, it was the Garden, a restaurant that occasionally hosted Duke Ellington's trombonist.

In 2013, Del Mar Gastro Lounge moved in and three years earlier Mandarin Hide. In 1988, Mastry's, a bar established in the 1930s, moved in from one block over. The block is home to the city's oldest hotel, the Detroit, which once housed guests such as Babe Ruth and Eleanor Roosevelt. In 2010, the building's owners fought the city from giving it a historic status.

Tony Amico, who owns a large portion of the block, said the block is one that has even more potential for development.

"The block has kind of been the entertainment block of St. Petersburg for 20 years," he said. "The city doesn't want the block to change. They want to keep the building historical, at the expense to us property owners."

Amico has a proposal for a new structure on the block and said the building has the potential for the highest structure and density.

"It's hard when you bought something 17 or 20 years ago and you bought it with the expectancy that the city had the block zoned for redevelopment," he said. "The group of us invested in that real estate when no one really wanted it. This city block was instrumental in bringing this city back to life."

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