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Pandemic creates recipe for change in Lakewood Ranch

Restaurants adapting to new business climate.

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  • | 1:50 p.m. July 22, 2020
The Granary general manager Hector Liemann adds powdered sugar to an order of French toast.
The Granary general manager Hector Liemann adds powdered sugar to an order of French toast.
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East County resident Karen Ronney said she and her husband, Malcolm, are on “Plan F” for their Lakewood Ranch restaurant. It’s not a failing plan, but rather the sixth attempt to find steady ground for operating their eatery, The Granary, during the pandemic.

“One week to the next is never the same,” Ronney said. “We’ve ripped up four or five plans now.”

They thought that by now they would be able to reopen seven days a week as they were before, but they are still closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Karen Ronney said that likely will last into the fall to see how the opening of schools impacts the number of COVID-19 cases in the area.

Some days, the Ronneys are breaking even. Other days, they’re not. And when unexpected expenses arise — such as the need to replace a $500 coffee maker — they’ve had to dip into savings. Ronney said she’s thankful to have had a solid customer base since opening five years ago and to have some savings available because some other businesses don’t.

Lakewood Ranch area restaurants have been operating at 50% capacity restrictions since June 5, as dictated by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Many local restaurateurs say it’s been a difficult ordeal as they try to balance operating under social distancing and other guidelines, having the right amount of inventory, keeping staff and customers safe and staying open altogether. They said making sure customers feel safe is an important part of gaining public trust, so customers return. They are adhering to social distancing and other sanitary guidelines, taking employee temperatures, requiring staff to wear masks and use gloves, increasing sanitation efforts and even installing plexiglass barriers when needed.

Anne Rollings, the manager of corporate office for Geckos Hospitality Group, said that the company has purchased electrostatic foggers for each of six locations — including the two in East County at Twelve Oaks and Braden River plazas — so they can be sterilized each day. Geckos is also asking customers to wear masks while waiting or walking through the restaurant.

“What people are coming to our restaurant for right now is the sense of camaraderie and timeless ritual of sharing a meal because they trust us,” Rollings said. “We’re doing our best to stay open. We couldn’t do it without the support of the community.”

Sea Star Cafe Owner Harry Klidonas said sales are down about 70%, but the number of visitors has generally coincided with COVID-19 trends. Upticks in cases mean fewer customers; fewer cases means more customers.

“It’s like a roller coaster, nothing steady,” he said. “I’m trying to survive. It’s a challenge. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

Justin Simms, manager of Truman’s Tap and Grill, said also the restaurant is doing the best it can. It has outdoor patio seating, but it gets hot. Inside, with restrictions, there’s only space for eight tables in the main dining area. The restaurant is on a limited menu, too.

“We do the best we can — we do specials; we do our trivia nights,” he said. “It’s hit or miss whether we break even.”

Eugenie Strawderman has worked for four years at Sea Star Cafe.
Eugenie Strawderman has worked for four years at Sea Star Cafe.

Linger Lodge Restaurant had closed for five weeks, from March 17 to May 8, when the coronavirus first hit, but it saw a 10% increase in business after reopening. However, the restaurant closed temporarily starting July 27. General Manager Rita Lewis said family of staff members tested positive for COVID-19, so she and business owners decided to close for a few months to ensure staff and customers are safe. 

No reopening date has yet been set, but Lewis said it likely would be October or November.

“It’s getting too close for comfort,” Lewis said. “We’ll play it by ear [as to when we reopen].”

Guadalupe Miranda, the general manager for Pincher’s Lakewood Ranch location, said sales volumes have been about 50%-60% of prior years on weekdays but about 80% of volumes on the weekends.

“It’s not the same as last year, but we’re making progress,” she said. 

This month, they put dividers up between tables, so customers are better separated. Guests also can watch masked chefs cook behind a glass wall.

“People see that and how we’re doing that, how clean we are,” she said. “They feel safe. They see that we’re taking all the steps.”

Greg Campbell, the director of operations and executive chef for Grove and its flagship restaurant, Pier 22, said Grove’s sales volumes are at 80% of what they were before COVID-19. However, the catering side of the business, traditionally its “lifeblood,” is closed right now.

Campbell said he is focused on health and safety, so customers feel comfortable dining at the restaurant, and his team is trying out a variety of new business ideas. For example, in Grove’s large ballroom space, previously used for large catering events and weddings, it’s hosting “Yoga and Mimosas” events on Sunday mornings and “Vino and Vinyasa” events on an evening during the week. For each, there’s an hourlong yoga class, and recipients get either a mimosa or glass or wine afterward, plus a coupon for 10% off breakfast or brunch.

Grove and Pier 22 also partnered with Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee to be a secondary source to deliver food.

Campbell said they’ve opened for breakfast on weekends, added sushi to the menu, added a food delivery service rather than using third-party service and are working on a “party” menu, so guests can have food deliveries for parties of four, 10 or 20 people.

Each new idea takes time and effort to plan and market, but Campbell said it’s exciting to see employees contributing ideas and working together to create new revenue streams.

“It’s about cultivating new business. We’re going to come out of this market, and it’s going to be a slightly different world. When we come out the other side, we’re going to be 100 times stronger than we were before.”


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