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On restaurant row, they come and go

Published May 23, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

Closings are common and turnover is high on a 3-mile stretch of Missouri Avenue that supports dozens of restaurants.

The Ponderosa steakhouse on Missouri Avenue in Largo closed in February after 23 years, leaving behind some customers who came so often they had their names stapled to the windowsills to reserve their favorite seats.

A week ago it was the Shoney's down the street that shut its doors after 15 years. Nearby, Smalley's Family Restaurant has been closed since last summer. A Taco Bell and KFC recently were replaced by a combination restaurant of those two and a Pizza Hut.

Why are so many restaurants closing on one of mid-Pinellas' busiest roads? The reasons are many. A tired theme, perhaps. Too-high prices. Not enough tourists.

In many cases, restaurants that move out are replaced by new ones that do better. About 30 restaurants remain open along the 3-mile stretch in Clearwater and Largo, some of which have been open for decades.

The strip supports two McDonald's, one Wendy's, one Checkers and two Mr. Submarine/Mr. Gyros, practically across the street from one another.

"If you can't find a place to eat around here, there's something wrong," said Bob Keller, Clearwater's assistant city manager for economic development.

Breaking the chain

Some analysts attribute the closings to the routine comings and goings in a tough industry that thrives on change.

In the case of the Ponderosa, the restaurant was unable to compete with newer steakhouses that offer a higher grade of meat for a little more money, said James Schaller Sr., a commercial real estate agent with Century 21 Mills First.

"It grew into a tired concept," said Schaller, who has been hired to sell the building. "It was time for a change."

In some cases, restaurant owners may be discovering that Missouri Avenue is a better home for mom-and-pop restaurants than for chains. Although the road is a busy north-south corridor, it is traveled mainly by locals, not tourists who are more likely to be attracted to brand names.

When a chain restaurant closes its doors, that creates an opportunity for local entrepreneurs.

Emily's V is a family-run restaurant that took advantage of just such an opportunity: a boarded-up Burger King across the street from the former Sunshine Mall.

The restaurant, which features family-style food offered up by two sisters and their parents, has done a brisk business since it opened three years ago. The family serves three meals a day, seven days a week.

Business should only get better, with about 600 apartments planned at the site of the former mall and with IMRglobal planning to open soon and bring more than 700 high-paying computer jobs, said Debbie Lares, who operates Emily's with her sister and her parents.

Just down the street, Country Harvest is run by a local family in a former Bob Evans. Owner Jim Trizis says he can make the restaurant succeed, whereas Bob Evans couldn't.

"I don't have to pay five managers, a home office, stockholders," he said. "Franchises must do volume or they won't make it."

The Bob Evans was open for about seven years, suffering through the demise of a nearby Sears store and the closing of Sunshine Mall before finally calling it quits. Such changes near a restaurant can have a devastating effect, said Dennis Murray, area director of operations for Bob Evans.

Murray, who also is state chairman of the Florida Restaurant Association, said family-run restaurants can have lower operating costs, survive on lower volume and attract more loyal customers than chains.

Those are some of the factors that may have caused the Shoney's to close a week ago, said Allen Peake, president of RMS Family Restaurants based in Macon, Ga., which owned the Shoney's.

Shoney's had strong support from area residents but didn't draw enough tourist traffic, he said.

Cost-conscious diners

The area has enough of what those in the business call "rooftops," or nearby residents, but many of them are senior citizens and many of them are on a budget, said Schaller of Century 21.

They like to eat out but seek the lower prices that locally run operations such as Emily's can offer.

National chains would prefer to be on U.S. 19 or Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard because those roads are traveled by more out-of-towners and tourists _ people who don't mind paying a little more in exchange for a familiar type and quality of food.

Streets such as Missouri Avenue are more comfortable homes for restaurants frequented by locals, such as the Concadoro Restaurant and Pizzeria, which has been across the street from the former Sunshine Mall for about 25 years.

Tony Iuppa, who has been an owner of the Concadoro for 15 years, says local restaurants are harmed by slumps in the area's economy and by seasonal swings in people's spending habits.

Concadoro has outlasted the mall, a Sears, and before that, a Winn-Dixie. Each year, the restaurant goes through slow periods during the spring and fall when, Iuppa says, families are spending more money on school and vacations than on eating out.

Staying in business when there's so much competition takes dedication and commitment, Iuppa says.

It's a competition that is more intense because Pinellas is the most densely populated county in the state.

"We have a tremendous number of restaurants," said Mike Milano, retail specialist with Colliers Arnold. "It's kind of scary."

Then again, there are always those who say there's room for more. Marshall S. Harris of Harris & Co. real estate says he has a contract from a fast-food chain for the former Burger King/Smalley's Family Restaurant in Largo.

Harris won't say who the potential tenant is, but he says it's a chain that's new to the area.