Paul Peden operates a 40-year-old restaurant in a 115-year-old property. In Southwest Florida, you won’t get a place more rooted in history than that.
For Peden, 70, longevity is both a gift and a challenge. As The Veranda celebrates its 40th birthday this year, its owner is working to keep the best of the restaurant’s traditions while evolving with its customers’ palates and culinary trends.
Let’s get this on the record first: Unlike many successful restaurants that branch into multiple locations and franchises (think: Rib City, owned by Peden and his son), you aren’t going to see The Veranda try to replicate itself.
“It’d be impossible. You couldn’t put it in a strip center. It wouldn’t work. It just wouldn’t work,” he says. “Trying to renovate more old houses would be impossibly expensive, so that wouldn’t work. So the answer, in a nutshell, is no.”
Instead, he’s put ting some TLC into his downtown property, which, incidentally, originated as a house built by Manuel Gonzalez, the father of Fort Myers.
Being in a century-old setting with two buildings, a courtyard and various small rooms takes work and money, he says. The restaurant is updating its flooring and chairs, along with adding menu items.
“We have a lot going on, but we still have to maintain and be consistent,” he says. “Just the idea of it is great, but we actually have to execute.”
Peden says he and Veranda’s staff have worked hard to maintain the high quality of food, service and experience since Veranda opened in 1978. Measuring performance is crucial, from customer satisfaction to menu controls, because if “you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he says.
“[Patrons] choose to come here, they choose to spend a little more money to do it, and they expect a little bit more for their investment,” he says. The restaurant serves up to 150 guests a night. Even the wait staff has staying power—most servers stay an average of eight to 10 years, which helps ensure quality, consistency and professional service.
“It’s a nonstop effort that we do at all fronts” to keep the restaurant at a high standard, which attracts repeat diners and new guests, Peden says.
“People that I knew 30 and 40 years ago as customers and friends, they move on, so we’re now working with the next generation,” he says.
He’s seen changes in the types of diners the restaurant attracts and their reasons for frequenting the place. Years ago, The Veranda drew a late-night bar crowd. These days, more patrons are looking to book it for private lunches and dinners and special events.
“We used to have a lot more guests who would come to drink and party, and that isn’t the case anymore. I think people generally do less of that than they did 20 years ago,” he says.
Regardless of what’s driving them in, Peden knows it’s more critical than ever to keep diners happy. He solicits feedback from those on his mailing list, about 2,000 patrons, and watches what people are saying on sites and apps such as TripAdvisor, Twitter and Facebook.
“If you have an unhappy customer, they have a lot of power now that they didn’t have 20 years ago. Sometimes it may not be true, but it’s a fact that you have to deal with,” he says.
Being a restaurateur means sticking to the old adage about customers.
“People expect when they come here to get something better. If they’re disappointed, then they respond accordingly,” he says. “So it doesn’t even matter what I think about their experience, it matters what they think about their experience. It’s not about right and wrong. The customer is always right.”
Peden says a 5 percent gain in customer growth year to year pleases him (he declined to provide revenue).
Peden has no plans to retire and instead intends to remain at the helm of The Veranda.
“It happens in a flash, and hopefully I’ll enjoy the next 10 years as much as I have the last 40,” he says.