SPRING HILL — Rick Putney was looking forward to celebrating his wife Susan's birthday with a special dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. But the locked door and shuttered windows at Anita's Restaurant told them what many of the establishment's regular clientele already knew: The restaurant, which opened in November, had recently closed.
Restaurant owner Anita Bosworth said business had fallen off to the point where she could no longer absorb the financial losses. Although her investors were willing to hang on, Bosworth conceded that perhaps Spring Hill wasn't ready to embrace her dining concept, which included stylish decor, an inviting atmosphere and a health-conscious menu.
Anita's isn't the only Hernando County restaurant that has fallen victim to tough economic times. Recent casualties include Swanie's Supper Club in Weeki Wachee, A Little Taste of Europe in Spring Hill, and Zip's Italian Steakhouse and the Cracked Bat, both in Brooksville.
No stranger to the restaurant business, Bosworth spent four years overseeing the kitchen operation at the upscale Southern Hills Plantation Club in Brooksville. She figured that a similar fine dining experience would be welcome in Spring Hill.
"Everything was real positive at first," Bosworth said. "We were able to attract quite a few regulars who would come in three or four times a month. The problem is, we didn't have enough of them."
Hernando County tourism director Tammy Heon said that launching a niche eatery in Hernando can be a dicey prospect. The lukewarm economic climate has made even the most ardent restaurant diners budget conscious.
"The obstacles that small restaurant owners face these days are tremendous," Heon said. "It's incredibly challenging to try and open a restaurant even in good times. But when you're in an area with 13 percent unemployment, lots of foreclosures and businesses that are struggling, it's a recipe for pain."
Nouvelle Cuisine owner Isabelle Roos said that while her restaurant of 11 years on Spring Hill Drive has seen plenty of challenges during the recession, business has remained fairly strong. She admits, however, that dining habits among even her most loyal customers have changed.
"Very few of our customers eat out more than once a week," said Roos, who runs the establishment with her chef husband, Jan Kinds. "When they do, they want consistency. You have to make sure that they are smiling when they leave."
Longtime Hernando County chef Kevin Howe, and former owner of the County Line Cafe and Grille, said that changes in Hernando County's dining scene have forced many independent restaurateurs to run their businesses more smartly.
"The competition from the chains is always a challenge," said Howe. "But it's even tougher now. In order to survive, you have to find your niche and be willing to stick with it through thick and thin."
Howe, along with his wife, Karen, operated the 48-seat County Line Cafe at U.S. 19 and County Line Road for 10 years before selling it last year. When they opened, the area was still unknown to most of the restaurant chains that now dominate Spring Hill's restaurant row.
As competition grew, Howe and his wife sought to distance themselves by offering high-quality family-style fare in an unhurried atmosphere — something that they didn't feel was available at the chain restaurants.
"In the end, it's all about what the customer thinks," Howe said. "When something isn't working, you need to figure out why. You can't be stubborn in this business and expect to be successful."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.