Paul Varsalona sold his Italian restaurant just north of Atlanta four years ago and traveled Europe, using the time to write a book.
“It’s about the restaurant business,” said Varsalona, 37, a second-generation restaurateur. “To give you the pitch, it’s kind of like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares meets The Sopranos.”
But by last summer, Varsalona was preparing to dive back into the business, laying the groundwork for another sprawling Italian restaurant.
He found prime rental space in Carrollwood, expanded when adjacent space became vacant, hired a staff and planned for a spring 2020 opening.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit and the doors stay closed for now at Esposito’s New York Style Italian Ristorante. Creditors kept knocking, though.
“I’ve already hired 25 employees,” Varsalona said. “Now we can’t open, so we were kind of banking obviously on that cash flow. Just unfortunate timing.”
Varsalona is one of many people in the Tampa Bay area whose business aspirations are stuck on the launchpad.
“It’s frustrating, but it is what it is,” said Todd Josko, who, with fiancée Badia Verona, was on the verge of opening Brioche in South Tampa — a blend of European and Mediterranean flavors emphasizing grab-and-go.
“We’re excited about opening, and we’re hopeful this will all be over soon and that it’s prudent and healthy for folks to start going out again and to patronize area restaurants," Josko said. "We’ll be ready when that happens.”
With their focus on carry-out service, Josko and Verona ― a Switzerland native and the restaurant’s chef ― are riding out the pandemic with minimal cash outlay. They haven’t hired any of their planned 10 employees and the space they’re renting in a plaza just south of Kennedy Boulevard occupies only about 750 square feet.
“The only thing we needed to do was to order food inventory and to staff up,” Josko said.
“We saw kind of what was happening and we put the brakes on those things in anticipation that there was a lot of uncertainty out there. It turned out that was a good decision. I think it would have not been in our best interest to have opened and had to adjust so quickly after a grand opening.”
Sherri Talcott just opened JoJo’s Feb. 10 in the St. Pete Beach historic shopping district and was also braced for an economic storm.
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A licensed hairstylist who ran her own salon for years, Talcott estimates she managed to make about $25,000, mainly from selling her boutique items at local festivals and the popular Corey Avenue Sunday Market.
“The very last one was I believe March 15, and we had an outpouring of support from the community,” said Talcott, a 55-year-old mother of five adult children. “And honestly, that one market was able to push me into another month of business after this is all done.”
Mark Irizarry and Christian Figueroa, on the other hand, are nervous. Solar installation sub-contractors and car enthusiasts, they had poured years of personal savings into Motor City Sports Bar in Zephyrhills when the pandemic put their dream on hold.
They planned to open at the end of March,” said Irizarry, a 36-year-old married father of three. “The only thing we were waiting for was the operational license.”
Now, they’re waiting for a break. No revenues are coming in but they still must pay monthly overhead that includes rent, insurance, utilities, TV service and internet. They even paid $2,500 to an artist who painted automobile murals on the building’s brick exterior.
To make ends meet, they’ve sold vehicles they used during their day job — two of their three box trucks and three of their five vans. Irizarry said the stress keeps him from sleeping.
“Man, we’re trying to do everything we can."
“If it means me having to sell some of my cars, some of my animals, we’re trying to ride it out," he said. "We’re hoping solar stays the way it is now; it’s slow, but it’s steady. As long as we’re allowed to continue to do some sort of work every week, we’ll get by. … We’re too vested into the bar to turn away now.”
For his part, Varsalona is seeking some type of governmental relief.
He paid his landlord and contractors a total of nearly $200,000 up front, but he has more bills — including rent of $17,000 per month. For the past week, he has pored over provisions of the Paycheck Protection Program, meant to provide loans to cover eight weeks of payroll and operating costs for employers with fewer than 500 workers.
The more he studies it, the more confused he becomes.
“A lot of the language in that bill is geared toward, ‘Send us your 2018, 2019 tax returns or revenue or payroll history,’” Varsalona said. “I don’t have that. I’m kind of stuck in the middle. I’m a new business.”
Meantime, he’s speaking with a publisher about his book and waiting for things to return to normal.
“It’s just, at what cost? It’s probably already close to $400,000.”
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