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An "eerie' silence at Kapok Tree

Aaron Fodiman walked through a nearly silent Kapok Tree Restaurant. There was no noisy hum of conversation in the background, no clink of glasses and plates. Only the sound of footsteps echoed in the grand hall inspired by Milan's Galleria.

"It's eerie," Fodiman said as he walked.

After more than 33 years in business, the ornate restaurant closed May 14.

The Kapok Tree fell victim to changes in the economy and in tastes, said Fodiman, who was the restaurant corporation's president.

Even though as many as a million diners a year came to the huge restaurant, and it recently was named best overall restaurant in the United States in a national restaurant poll, it wasn't making enough money to stay in business.

"At any other restaurant having 1,200 people a day, my God, that is phenomenal," Fodiman said. "But we needed about $500,000 a month (in sales) to break even."

Electricity for the building often cost as much as $17,000 a month. And then came the recent increase in the minimum wage rate and a downturn in the economy

that has affected many restaurants.

When the restaurant opened in December 1957 it was unique. People came to the restaurant to eat, but the four-item menu wasn't the only draw. In the days before Walt Disney World, the restaurant itself was an attraction. People came to wander the gardens and stare at the fountains, statues and collectibles gathered from around the world.

"For many people this was what they read about in books," he said.

But, with Epcot Center a short drive away, and smaller, intimate restaurants becoming the choice of diners, the Kapok Tree became an anachronism.

So, when the reserve money ran out, Fodiman said he was forced to close.

The restaurant was supposed to be a retirement home by now anyway, Fodiman said.

Murray Steinfeld, a Houston real estate developer, bought the Kapok Tree restaurants in Fort Lauderdale, Madeira Beach and Clearwater in 1984 for the land, not the restaurants. The Madeira Beach and Fort Lauderdale restaurants weren't profitable anyway, Fodiman said.

But they sat on large parcels of land. Steinfeld brought Fodiman in to run the restaurants until he could build retirement homes on the land.

"The restaurant would be there just as long as it took," Fodiman said. "On the time frame that he was working on it would be closed by now."

He succeeded in building one retirement home on the Clearwater property, but there were zoning delays on the Madeira Beach property. Then Steinfeld, 54, died of a heart attack in 1988.

Because of debt that had mounted over the years, it soon became apparent that the restaurant corporation would have to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, Fodiman said.

The reorganization didn't work, and the case was dismissed from bankruptcy court. Shortly after, Fodiman closed the restaurant.