Two menus lay unopened in front of Bill and Karen Gay. After nearly 20 years, they know what to order: She'll have the shrimp pasta; he takes his shrimp fried.
When the couple recently walked into their favorite Shells, a notice taped to the host's podium told them not to worry — the restaurant faces no threat of bankruptcy. The marquee outside says "We'll be here forever!"
"I'm surprised they think people don't know that," Karen Gay said. "We knew it."
The customers were a welcome sight for the restaurant's general manager of 16 years, Pat Mullen. Shells Seafood Restaurants Inc. filed for bankruptcy and terminated its operations in September, closing Shells throughout the Tampa Bay area. Mullen said he was afraid people wouldn't know his store, 202 S Dale Mabry Highway, was safe. Four Shells locations, including the original two in Tampa and one in Sarasota, are independently owned and were not part of the corporate collapse.
But the already slow fall restaurant season has been even more sluggish for Mullen and the other Tampa location at 11010 N 30th St. Longtime customers have stopped showing up because they think the stores are closed, managers said.
"That's got to be part of it," Mullen said after a sigh. "But I'm optimistic. Our sales are showing promise. We're not just treading water."
Chris Mackey, general manager of the Shells on 30th Street in North Tampa, said he fears he'll go out of business only because people think he already has.
Mackey, who has been manager for about a year, put flags and signs outside and placed ads in local newspapers and commercials on TV — the same outlets he said are to blame for the misconceptions.
"Since the news and stuff has gotten the story, sales have dropped dramatically — like 20 percent in the last month," Mackey said. People don't want to risk driving to Shells only to learn it's closed, he said.
"Who wants to drive in this day and age with the price of gas? You don't want to drive somewhere and take a chance," he said. "It's crushed us."
Both locations plan to update their menus with "classic favorites," like popular pasta dishes, by next month. Mullen said his new menu would have less of the "extravagant dishes," such as $18 steak, shrimp and crab cake combos. Mackey promised more food for your buck.
The Gays liked the idea of going back to the basics. They're fans of the simple dishes.
"Once (the restaurant) started expanding, it became impersonal," Karen Gay said. "We were worried."
Across a sparsely populated dining room, two graying South Tampa sisters laughed over chunks of buttered bread. Nadia Aguilar told Diana Llaneza she's got to try the crab cakes while she can.
Upon hearing of the corporation's bankruptcy, Aguilar said she was concerned that the South Tampa store might suffer.
"We're going to lose a good restaurant," Aguilar said. "At least, I hope not."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.