Fierce competition among pubs, clubs along SoHo

SOHO

They face each other, competitors in the beer business, all within throwing distance on S Howard Avenue.

There's fratty MacDinton's Irish Pub, which draws a wall-to-wall happy hour crowd on Friday and consistent traffic most nights.

Across the street to the north, is the Dubliner Irish Pub, more laid back and intimate with cover bands reminiscent of college bars and a roster of imported tap beers.

Across MacDinton's on another side is Yard of Ale — whose name says it all. It opened Sept. 30 as a repackaged Medieval version of the old Cork wine bar.

Now comes World of Beer, a chain that has developed a strong fan base throughout Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, bringing with it scores of taps and 500-beer selections. The SoHo location is slated to open in late November.

That'll make four bars in the vicinity of a block catering to a beer-swilling crowd.

Can they all survive on S Howard Avenue, an unforgiving 1-mile stretch of boutiques, coffee shops, bars and restaurants that compete and often cannibalize each other?

• • •

Business owners are optimistic.

Yard of Ale general manager Candy Patchin has no doubt her new bar concept will succeed in a crowd of pubs.

"People are showing more of an interest in beer than wine," she said. "I think World of Beer will help. I don't see World of Beer being competition. They would just bring in more beer drinkers to the area in the long run."

Across the street, MacDinton's also sounds more welcoming than wary.

"It's just what the area was demanding," said general manager Chris Sweeney. "World of Beer was smart to come into the area, and Yard of Ale is going to do great. The area just wants beer."

But how many kegs are too many?

"There's so much out here, so much competition, so many places to go," said Jack Rodriguez, past president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors.

Sweeney acknowledged each bar will try to create its own niche.

"It's going to take some creativity on everyone's end that makes everyone unique from night to night and week to week and year to year," he acknowledged.

That's definitely part of it, say survivors of SoHo's main strip, along with strong financial backing, late hours and style to stand out without alienating anyone.

Sound tricky? It has been.

• A representative for World of Beer did not return messages for this article, but the site had previous incarnations as Mateo's Fresh Mex and Taqueria Quetzalcoatl. One reason for failure? At least one owner points to Chipotle, which moved into the strip mall across the street in 2006.

• Before the popular Drynk opened as a Miami Beach-style bar, the rectangular building housed the Corner Bar. Before that, the equally unpretentious Po' Boys called the space home. But then the SoHo Tavern moved in across the street, offering pretty much the same thing.

• The Lodge, a restaurant/club known for its comfort food, opened in early 2009 at the former 42nd Street Bistro. Before that, the building had seen three unsuccessful concepts in less than 18 months.

• Yard of Ale's former life as Cork began in December 2008, when the wine bar replaced Casa Dolce, a gelato and coffee bar. It had to compete with Panera Bread and a popular 24-hour Starbucks just up the street.

Tommy Ortiz knows SoHo. He is the founder of the SoHo Leisure Group, which owns the iconic Hyde Park Cafe on nearby Platt Street, and launched watering holes Cheap and the Kennedy. His group also serves as World of Beer's landlord.

The keys to success? A liquor license and late hours, he says.

"You have to have a level playing field. You have to be able to at least offer hours that are the same as other businesses along the street," he said. "Our guests were telling us, 'We'd love to come here two or three times a week but we'd love to have a margarita.' "

But wet-zoning and extended hours are something vocal residents in the surrounding neighborhoods fight tooth-and-nail, as they did in 2008 when Lime first asked the City Council for extended hours. The request failed.

This year, the owners tried again and succeeded in August. But the Parkland Estates Civic Club and Village Gate of Hyde Park Property Owners Association have since sued the city over its decision.

Rebecca Graff, 31, has lived behind Lime for six years and said she has seen cars striking light poles and parking stops coming out of SoHo bars.

The proliferation of beer bars up the street is a step backward. Residents want more charming restaurants — even wine bars such as Cork — not yards and so-called "worlds" awash in lager.

"We're just trying to achieve a balance between the surrounding neighborhood and what's become a bar district," Graff said, "something that hasn't been achieved by the current council."

Ortiz said he also wants fine restaurants in SoHo. But restaurants that serve dinner and close by 11 p.m. have failed. Customers typically eat late then migrate to the strip's bars, hopping from one to the other.

To capitalize, places such as the Rack on Platt Street and Cheap, keep their kitchens open all night.

Food, Jimmy Lanza says, is how you survive on SoHo.

He is co-owner of distinctive restaurants along the strip including the Lime, Daily Eats and Ciccio & Tony's. His group has succeeded by realizing what South Tampa wants: small portions and light fare.

"If people are going to go out at night, they don't want to be stuffed," he said.

The menus Lanza's restaurants purvey feature dishes like watermelon and arugula salads, grilled tilapia tortilla rolls, baby corn dogs and gluten-free thin-crust pizzas.

Each restaurant fits a niche but also seems hard to pin down. Daily Eats, for instance, is a diner, but one that serves turkey burgers and salads with sliced strawberries. The Lime might be a sports bar, but, with its Latin-themed menu and DJ, it's a world away from Hooters. The Lodge serves $7 lunches during the day but transforms into a nightclub at dusk on the weekends.

"Tampa is not a huge community and we felt that our restaurants had to appeal to a diverse crowd to be busy every night," Lanza said.

He learned a lesson at Lime where, after lagging business, his group recently revamped the menu.

But some traditionally haven't been able stick it out. Rodriguez, the Realtor, said a main reason SoHo is littered with broken dreams is that most entrepreneurs don't have the financial support they need to withstand the fierce competition.

"Anything could be successful if you have the money to hang in there and go toe-to-toe for a while," he said. "It's all about staying power. If their concept takes off and can sustain itself, it will work."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Fierce competition among pubs, clubs along SoHo 10/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 5:31am]

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