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Dining, with a Dash of Disney

Local restaurateurs find mulitiple successes with creative eateries.



Michael McGuigan, Daniel Kearns II, Zak Kearns, Daniel Kearns

Alex Stafford

 

In downtown Fort Myers, you can step inside a traditional Mexican cantina with brick and plaster walls, cactus garden, rustic furniture, mariachi music. Cross the street and you’re in another place, another era. Jazz. Flappers. Gangsters.

And soon, you’ll be able to take a few more steps and transport yourself from the tropics to the mountains, where you can gaze out at the slopes, cluster around the big stone fireplace, watch the ski lift on its never-ending loop.

“We tried to create our own little Disney World down here,” says Daniel Kearns, president of Kearns Restaurant Group, part of the team that has reinvented what it means to dine in downtown.

“Epcot Center,” his son Zak Kearns, the company vice president, interjects.

Together with partners Michael McGuigan of McGuigan Restaurant Concepts and Nils Richter of Phoenix Holdings of Southwest Florida, the Kearns are creating Fort Myers’ own restaurant row—and helping to drive the area’s continued resurgence. They are the minds behind Ford’s Garage, The Firestone, Los Cabos Cantina, Capone’s Coal Fired Pizza and soon, The Lodge, inspired by northern hunting and ski lodges and featuring southern smoked barbecue.

The founders won’t disclose revenue information, but business is clearly booming—eight restaurants in three years, including a Ford’s Garage in Cape Coral and at Miromar Outlets, and the Boat House Tiki Bar & Grill at the Cape Coral Yacht Club.

“Last night, downtown was packed,” Daniel Kearns says, speaking in mid-November. “Everywhere, all the stores. We never saw that before.”

That’s a big deal in downtown Fort Myers, an area haunted by the ghosts of other establishments: Liquid Café, the Morgan House, Red Rock Saloon, Peter’s la Cuisine and countless others that have come and gone. But these entrepreneurs, pardon the pun, may have found the right recipe for longevity: an appeal to a wide demographic; menu pricing that reflects the market; a partnership among experienced restaurant developers; and a focus on giving customers a unique—and varied—dining experience. In the group’s Fort Myers eateries, you can get burgers and craft beer at Ford’s Garage, upscale seafood and steak at The Firestone, Tex-Mex at Los Cabos and Italian at Capone’s.

This is no small feat. The last few years have been tough ones in the restaurant industry, says Jonathan Maze, the senior financial editor for Nation’s Restaurant News, an industry publication. In addition to the recession that sent Americans back to their kitchens, food prices, particularly for beef and pork, have been rising.

Maze said he didn’t have a reliable estimate of how many fledgling restaurants fail within their first few years, but says the number is high.

“The underlying fact is it’s a difficult industry,” he says. “You can have a restaurant that is pretty well regarded, but you can still fail. There are so many factors that go into whether a restaurant is successful or not. It’s difficult. You have to be able to sell food at a rate that will bring customers in but still enable you to make a profit.”

Indeed. Census data show that some 60,000 open and 50,000 close every year, according to Christin[JR1]  Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association. While not all of those closures are failures, the number does give a good sense of industry turnover.

The ones that prevail make the right combination of business decisions—location, prices, customer appeal, reputation, Maze says.

“You have to have a theme or a business model that is really relevant to today’s customers,” Maze says. “You have to be able to gain a reputation, you have to be able to emerge above the noise—and that is the challenge for any independent restaurant company that emerges in today’s market. They have to be able to have something that is good enough to retain customers in a very competitive market.”

And that’s what this Fort Myers group is hoping to do.

“I give Walt Disney a lot of credit,” says McGuigan. “Disney touches all of your senses. That’s what we’re trying to do—it’s a dining experience. It’s not just going out to eat, it’s the whole thing.”

Creativity abounds—sinks at Ford’s are made from tires and gas nozzles, the men’s bathroom at Capone’s is modeled after the gangster’s cell at Alcatraz, the tiki huts at the Boat House were handcrafted by Seminole Tribe members, the wait staff at all locations dress the part, from fringe dresses to mechanics’ shirts.

The Lodge may be the partners’ most ambitious undertaking yet—at least as far as total-body experience is concerned. They have been traveling to mountain resorts to absorb the ambiance and re-create it in perhaps the most unlikely of locales.

They’re planning bar tops fashioned out of 3-inch slabs of wood, a natural stone fireplace, exposed beams, and, yes, a chairlift running along one side. On the other, they will install a video wall spanning more than 50 feet, the first of its kind in a Southwest Florida restaurant. The pictures are animated, so you’ll feel as if the clouds are really drifting over the mountaintops, the sun is really rising or setting (the images will be synced with the actual time of day), the occasional animal is actually darting across the landscape. It can also be used for sporting events.

And—if they can figure out the logistics—the creators want to install a “chill room,” so that you get a blast of artic air before entering the lodge’s warmth.

“We want you to feel like you’re somewhere else,” McGuigan says.

The Lodge is projected to open on March 1 at 2278 First St., which most recently had been the Red Rock Saloon.

“They are a great addition,” says Robert Cacioppo, whose Florida Repertory Theatre came to downtown 17 years ago, a time so quiet that he used to joke about watching for tumbleweeds. “Obviously, they know how to run restaurants, and they are always packed.”

The director is happy to see the group opening multiple establishments: “When you have one or two restaurants, it’s not as good as when you have 10. Then, it becomes a dining destination. Now, you have this group bringing in five restaurants and Blu Sushi opening across the street, and a new steakhouse called Prime [Prime de Leon] that is really fantastic. Downtown is now a destination – for art galleries, for music, for art and so on. That group is a fantastic addition.”

But even as they diversify their restaurants, Ford’s Garage, their first downtown establishment, remains their best-known brand — and the one that is poised to launch them into the next phase.

Daniel Kearns hadn’t known anything about Fort Myers’ history during his first trip here in 2007. He was living in Fort Lauderdale where he owned, operated or consulted for a host of different restaurants and nightclubs. He hadn’t exactly been impressed—he’d come during the streetscape project that had downtown in shambles and dominated by empty storefronts. The broker he was meeting with suggested they have lunch at the Fort Myers Country Club, which was seeing its restaurant’s umpteenth iteration—this time called “Syl’s.” To make a long story short, Kearns ended up helping out the owner, and then buying the restaurant and discovering Fort Myers’ rich history.

“We came up with the name The Edison, and that started the branding,” Zak Kearns says, taking up the story. “That was the fire that started it… A lot of the history of this town has played into our restaurants, and I think that’s what has the attraction and allure to people, whether its residents or visitors—it’s the history.”

The restaurants pay homage to the so-called “Uncommon Friends,” Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone, and also offer a nod to Fort Myers’ current dignitaries by naming Ford’s Garage burgers in their honor (they’ve done the same for Cape Coral and Estero luminaries).

Even Al Capone was rumored to have hidden out in Fort Myers, though his great-niece Deirdre Marie Capone says that’s more urban legend than anything. He certainly did pass through the area, traveling down U.S. 41 on his way from Chicago to Miami and is known to have stayed at the Shangri La in Bonita Springs. Capone, who lives in Southwest Florida, has written a book about her uncle, Uncle Al Capone, and signed books at the restaurant’s opening.

“My uncle’s likeness and his name have been used on all kids of restaurants all over the world. These guys are in my backyard, and they are just a nice mix of entrepreneurs,” she says. The restaurant has copies of her book available for purchase. Capone, who is working to tell her uncle’s story beyond the Hollywood caricature, hopes to work more closely with the restaurant in the future should it expand.

Ford’s Garage was the first downtown location, taking over the space once occupied by The Morgan House restaurant. Ford’s was an instant hit, and grabbed the attention of retired Ford executives who lived in Naples. They loved it so much that they alerted former colleagues at Ford headquarters in Michigan, according to the Kearns. Last July, the restaurant and Ford Motor Co. announced a brand-licensing agreement allowing Ford’s Garage to use the carmaker’s iconic blue oval, in addition to historical photos and other images and actual Model A’s and T’s.

“It means everything,” Zak Kearns says.

The group’s big test is yet to come. The partners are developing their first out-of-market Ford’s Garage, in Brandon, across from the Westfield Mall. It’s a huge space—8,200 square feet formerly housing a Buca di Beppo’s—that the founders have gutted and rebuilt. It’s expected to open mid February.

“After conferring with a lot of people who are bigger than us and who are big developers, we knew we had to go out of the market to prove our concept works,” Daniel Kearns explains.

 “Ford’s Garage is unique,” Kearns adds. “There’s a lot of burger places—we know them all—but we’re unique. We have the hook.”

The founders are working with a Michigan restaurateur to open a Dearborn location, as well, something that Ford Motor Co. is anxious to see built.
“They call us every couple of weeks, ‘When are you coming?’ It’s amazing—it’s Ford everything in that town,” McGuigan says. He and his partners are hoping to have that location running within a year.
Starting this month, Ford’s founders will begin considering franchise applications. They’ve been getting worldwide inquiries, thanks in part to the exposure they’ve gotten at Miromar Outlets, which draws an international crowd. The founders say they’ll be expanding cautiously.
“We have to treat it like a little child, to make sure it matures well,” Daniel Kearns says.
Time will be the real test of these restaurants, suggests Fernandez of the restaurant association.

“One of the big risks for restaurants is stagnation,” she says. “Innovation, openness and knowing your customers are key to staying ahead of the curve especially in a fast-paced and constantly evolving industry like the restaurant industry.”

Restaurants must adapt to evolving customer demands like locally sourced foods and technology enhancements such as online ordering or mobile pay features.

“Americans dine out on average about five to seven times a week and with nearly a million restaurant locations nationwide, restaurateurs need to provide not only delicious menu options but customer service that will bring diners to the table and keep them coming back,” Fernandez says.

As the company looks to expand, local business representatives are just happy the group is thriving here.

“We are just thrilled with all the new things going on in downtown Fort Myers, and a lot of it has to do with dining and walkability,” says Pamela Johnson, deputy director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, referring to recent city efforts to expand its waterfront walkways.
Johnson says a vibrant restaurant scene can help spur other business, such as encouraging a new Sheraton Hotel that is planned for Bay Street. She is particularly pleased to see independently owned restaurants set up here.
“It makes visits to the downtown area more compelling, and it offers visitors something other than the things they can get anywhere,” she says.

 

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