Restaurants like Ford's Garage use the experience to get you in the door

Published May 25 2018
Updated May 25 2018

Tim Butler’s first car was a Ford Model A pick-up truck — a pearl fawn and cherry red pick-up he got his senior year in high school from his dad, who renovates antique cars.

That’s why as Butler waited for a table at the Ford’s Garage restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, he was texting photos to his father in New York: snapshots of an antique Ford outside set up like it’s getting gas, another black car hoisted up above the bar, the bathroom sinks made out of tires.

"He already told me he has to come here the next time he visits," said Butler, 28, as he read his dad’s responses on his phone.

Butler got that blast of classic Americana before he even sat down for lunch with a group of coworkers. That’s what owner Marc Brown expects. The St. Pete location is the ninth Ford’s Garage his company, Tampa’s 23 Restaurant Services, has opened since 2012.

At a time diners are pulling away from the typical chain restaurant, Brown and his partners have found success in a series of concepts or theme-based eateries.

"Experience is the buzzword," said Brian Connors, a hospitality consultant in Fort Lauderdale. "How do you stand out form your competition? By creating not only great food but a better hospitality experience."

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The first Ford’s Garage told a story: Fort Myers, the flagship location, is where Henry Ford and Thomas Edison spent their winters. But then the concept caught on — the 10th location in Lakeland will open in about a month.

"We really hit every demographic," Brown said. "People love the old-time, nostalgia feel and attention to detail."

Ford’s Garage shares its building at 200 First Ave. in St. Petersburg with one of Brown’s other concepts: British pub Yeoman’s Cask & Lion. Yeoman’s got its start as a Davis Islands staple, before Brown worked with its owners to rebrand and open a location on Morgan Street in Tampa.

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St. Pete’s Yeoman’s has the same flair, bright blue and reds, and pop art of English icons as its counterpart. A red phone booth tucked in a corner; a cartoon-drawn Queen next to Sir Paul McCartney. Brown said he traveled with his team to England for research on its menu and style.

"In the casual dining industry, there’s an oversupply," said Darren Tristano, CEO for global food service data firm CHD Experts. "We have more restaurants than consumer demands. And that’s why we’re seeing older successful brands struggle."

Consumers aren’t looking to go to similar restaurants with similar atmosphere, similar menus and the same experience, according to some experts. "Nothing stands out from the crowd," Trisanto said.

Many sit-down chains are struggling:

Applebee’s closed 99 locations last year with more expected to shutter this year and Tampa’s Bloomin’ Brands — which owns Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s and Bonefish Grill — has closed 43 under-performing locations. Outback has carried the chain for several quarters in sales while other restaurants struggle to grow.

The namesake restaurant of Tampa football great Lee Roy Selmon is turning a number of its locations into Glory Days. The original location in Tampa will close, its owners announced this week.

To counteract, successful brands are looking for ways to extend the stay of their customers. Connors said it’s called "capture rate." The longer amount of time people spend at a venue, the more they spend.

One of 23 Restaurant’s latest plans — Tiki Docks on Riverview’s Alafia River — will allow patrons to rent jet skis and paddle boat between seafood and drink orders. City Market Eats, which just opened in Tampa, focuses on local foods and flavors while giving off similar vibes to the growing food hall trend.

In Fort Lauderdale, Brown’s partners run a pizza place called Capone’s that centers around Al Capone’s "real" vault — not the one Geraldo Rivera infamously found empty in 1986. It’s filled with mob props and treasures.

"The dining industry has changed so much," Brown said. "When we were starting it out, it wasn’t so much trying to do something different than our competitors. We just really believe dining is more than good food and good service."

Paying customers like Butler agree. He was already plotting when he might be able to hop next door to check out Yeoman’s.

"I did live in London for seven years," he said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] Follow @sara_dinatale.