On a recent day, Dan and Roberta Michelson pulled into the deserted parking lot of the Water's Edge Fine Dining, looking forward to celebrating their wedding anniversary with a quiet, relaxing dinner at their favorite restaurant.
It didn't happen.
The locked door told them what many of the establishment's regular clientele had known since Father's Day. Water's Edge, the Weeki Wachee restaurant known for its top-shelf menu and inviting atmosphere, was closed.
"It's a shame," Roberta Michelson said. "They had the best seafood I've ever tasted. We rarely ate anywhere else."
Water's Edge owner and chef Kelly Foley said that after three years in business, he and his wife, Debbie, could no longer fight the slumping economy. Despite slashing menu prices, offering drink specials and adding live entertainment on weekends, the restaurant found it more and more difficult to lure even regular customers.
Faced with trying to endure the slow summer season on a shoestring budget with no guarantee that things would improve significantly in the fall, the couple decided to throw in the towel.
"Abandoning your dream is the hardest thing you can do," Kelly Foley said. "We put every ounce of effort we could into it, and it wasn't enough. In the end, it came down to money. You can't blame anybody."
Failing locally owned restaurants are nothing new. In fact, national statistics say that about half of new restaurants don't make it to the three-year mark.
Open since December 2005, Water's Edge was past that point. According to Foley, the restaurant was topping $1 million in annual sales by the end of its second year. In addition a steady stream of regular customers, the restaurant became a favorite spot for large private and employee dinner gatherings.
But when the economy began to slump last fall, it hit the business hard, Foley said. He doesn't think that menu prices had anything to do with it.
"We weren't expensive," Foley said. "We were serving filet mignon for $10. But when customers who were dining out two or three times start telling you they could only afford to come once a month, you know you're in trouble. There's nothing you can do to put money in their pockets."
Water's Edge is just one of about two dozen Hernando restaurants that have closed in the past year. Established restaurants such as the Cracked Egg in Spring Hill and Morrison's Countryside Buffet in Brooksville have shuttered their doors, leaving diners who have a taste for homegrown fare with fewer and fewer choices.
According to Hernando tourism coordinator Sue Rupe, the downturn has had a measurable effect on the county's economy. Restaurant tax receipts in February were down 39 percent compared to the same period a year before. Overall dining taxes were off 31 percent in 2008 from 2007.
Although many independent restaurants may be hurting, Rupe said a number have managed to weather the downturn by turning to resourceful measures.
"You're starting to see a lot of co-op marketing efforts and tie-in between restaurants and other businesses," Rupe said. "For the consumer, it can be great because you can find some really good deals right now."
Leslie Jackson, owner of Besta One Italian Grille in Spring Hill, says that surviving the slowdown means having to rethink the way she and her husband run their business.
"It's a double whammy for us because we have to compete with both the economy and more competition from the chains that have moved in near us," Jackson said. "We're playing a brand new game than the one we were playing two years ago."
The restaurant in the Coastal Way Shopping Plaza on Cortez Boulevard enjoyed little competition from other dining establishments when the Jacksons took it over in early 2007. Since then, Panera Bread, Texas Roadhouse, Pizza Villa and a new Five Guys have arrived within shouting distance. To make matters worse, the area recently lost several tenants, including Circuit City and Linens 'n Things.
For the Jacksons, the battle to stay afloat has included switching to vendors who offer better deals on ingredients, reducing the staff from 20 employees to 18 and stretching supplies as much as possible. In addition to running the business, Jackson also now works as a prep cook in the kitchen. Her husband is now the restaurant's pizza chef.
To better compete with the chains, the Jacksons lowered every item on the menu by 10 percent at the beginning of the year. Another round of price cuts is looming.
"You have to really love this business in order to stay in it," Leslie Jackson said. "It's not just about serving food."
Joe Giarrantana, who has owned Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant east of Brooksville for 28 years, thinks the best thing a small-restaurant owner can do is to stay focused on giving customers what they deserve: good food and service.
"You don't want to do anything that will not make them want to come back," Giarrantana said. "Try to do the best you can."
Although business has been slow, Giarrantana said he hasn't laid off any of his 45 full-time and part-time employees, preferring to keep his staff as much intact as possible for when better times to return.
"I've been through this before — maybe not as bad, but enough to know that things will eventually get better," Giarrantana said. "When they do, we'll still be here."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.