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FlowRider surf machine resurfaces at Clearwater Beach Surf Style store

Surf Style store manager Edel Gonzalez catches some air Thursday at Clearwater Beach as he rides the waves of the FlowRider.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Surf Style store manager Edel Gonzalez catches some air Thursday at Clearwater Beach as he rides the waves of the FlowRider.

CLEARWATER — The Adrenalina store in International Plaza closed months ago, but its artificial surf machine roars back to life for land-bound wakeboarders next week on Clearwater Beach.

"It's going to be a real attention getter in a better location," said Avi Ovaknin, president of Surf Style Retail, a chain of 40 beachwear superstores the stretches from Miami to Gulfport, Miss.

Most FlowRiders are in water parks or cruise ships. Purchased and installed for $1 million, the used model will be a drawing card in Ovaknin's first $10 million megastore. It's another attempt to create a magnet for gawkers and the surfboard/skateboard crowd that might spend more money in the store if they linger longer.

The Labor Day launch of the FlowRider will feature 30 percent discounts on a $20-a-half-hour ride on the jet-propelled sheet of water.

But it's just one part of how the entrepreneurial Ovaknin, 48, figures to shake things up on an often-crowded beach notorious for a shortage of parking.

While his typical Surf Style is the size of a Walgreens, this megastore is as big as a Publix. It's designed to function like a baby Grand Central Station.

Ovaknin built a 350-space parking garage atop his latest Surf Style store that deposits visitors exiting the elevators in the middle of his store en route to the beach across Gulfview Boulevard. Located just south of the Hyatt Aqualea Resort, parking will be free for the opening weekend before returning at an undetermined date to a standard $1 an hour.

Inside, the sprawling two-floor layout packs an expanded selection of beachwear, a 300-seat Britt's Restaurant, a fudge and candy shop and a convenience store twice the size of a 7-Eleven. The Chamber of Commerce staffs a rent-free tourist information booth.

The place will be open around the clock, 365 days a year.

Out front, the new store boasts a colorful Guy Harvey sea life mural 44 feet tall (T-shirt versions are sold inside) and an outdoor esplanade with a beach view Ovaknin hopes to enliven by inviting Zumba groups to exercise there.

Whether Ovaknin pulls it off is another matter. Highly seasonal, tourist retailing is tricky business. Weekend crowds may be free spending, but weekdays and the doldrums of fall can get lonely. Beach hotel customers won't walk far for T-shirts and tanning lotion, so big players must saturate pricey beach real estate with multiple stores.

But it's hard to dismiss an immigrant who parlayed his sales rep job with a Fort Lauderdale T-shirt wholesaler into a retail empire. Ovaknin persuaded his boss to help him set up shop on Florida's Gulf Coast in 1990. He put his first store, called Way Cool, in an old Clearwater Beach mom-and-pop motel. He leased two rooms with a view of the beach for 15 years, then remodeled them into a shop.

Renamed Surf Style, the business today touts eight stores in the bay area, four of them on Clearwater Beach. Surf Style competes head to head with Wings, which was also launched by Israeli immigrants.

"My education in this business came from experience," he said. "And the business model continues to evolve."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

FlowRider surf machine resurfaces at Clearwater Beach Surf Style store 08/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2011 11:26am]
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