VERO BEACH — This past spring and summer the Vero Beach restaurant scene lost such former favorites as Pearl, Carmel’s, Stellas, the New Patio and Ti Amo Sempre.
But in each case a new tenant – some with longstanding beachside ties – has stepped in to fill the gastronomic void. Pearl was taken over by John Marx, who has brought back the Polo Grill to its old Ocean Drive address, though he is using just half the space he had when he left in 2007.
Work is under way for an Asian-concept eatery at Carmel’s, which closed down its Miracle Mile restaurant at the end of last season.
Co-owner Carol Lausch said she agonized over the decision, but shut down after becoming convinced it was too challenging to run a fine dining establishment off the beach.
Out west, Croce Giambanco closed Stella’s and replaced it with a breakfast, lunch and dinner eatery called Bonnie Lee’s.
The landmark New Patio has been replaced by El Toro at the Patio and is being run by the Replogle family of the Ocean Grill fame.
Ti Amo Sempre, which closed in April, has been replaced with di Mare, an Italian fine dining restaurant that was opened last month by Jean and Edyta Zana from Satellite Beach.
The restaurant business is known for a high failure rate, but what Vero Beach has gone through over the last year has at least one local expert shaking his head.
“The turnover is very unusual, but it is the way the economy is right now,” said Rip Tosun, former owner of Monte’s and past chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “A lot of people think this is a great business to get into. Unfortunately it is not the best business in the world. Costs keep going up and the margin of profit is very small these days.” Billy Moss, a commercial real estate agent who specializes in restaurants, says the demise of the current crop of restaurants dates back to 2007 when gas prices spiked to their highest level in a generation.
“The biggest hit for restaurants was gas prices,” he said. “The cost of bringing in product to a restaurant sharply rose from a $1.50 a gallon to $4. That started the steamroll along with the economy.”
And if the restaurant owner could handle the spike in costs brought on by the high price of gas, many in the city had to contend with the summer increase from Vero Beach electric rates at their slowest time of the season.
The restaurants with weak balance sheets could not handle that double whammy. They made it through season, but could not contend with another summer slowdown.
“The reality is the strong survive, the professionals that have been in the business for a long time survive,” said Moss. “Here in Vero Beach you look at a guy like Charlie Replogle at Ocean Grill, he survived. You look at Bobby McCarthy (of Bobby’s), an old-time restaurant guy, he survived. They know how to cut costs and watch their restaurant, they handle it professionally. They are known for their customer service and retaining their employees.”
Tosun agrees that the restaurants that have an established clientele and – he can’t stress this enough – good customer service should not only survive, but thrive.
“I think we are in for another tough season,” he said. “I think the good restaurants with owners who have been around for a while and have been through the hard times will hold on. I’ve been in the restaurant business for 60 years and when times get tough you need to tighten your belt a little bit. Unfortunately, when times are good people don’t know how to prepare for bad times. They think it is going to be good forever.
“The good restaurants will do well and the ones that are marginal — by next summer we will see more restaurants closing like we did this year.”
Moss said one welcome trend diners might see this season – one that actually most restaurants that have opened up in the last two years have stressed – is moderately priced menus.
“The great fallout has changed the complexion of the restaurant business,” he said. “Value-oriented businesses are doing well, the new word is ‘it is chic to be cheap.’ Even the high-end restaurants will offer specials.”
But moderation can only be managed so far, warns Tosun. “It’s hard to stay moderately priced when each time you get your food delivery, you notice everything is going up 3, 4, 5 percent,” he said. “They add a fuel surcharge on top of your delivery. It’s hard to keep any margin of profit.
You can be moderately priced for a little while, but eventually you have got to bump it up a little bit to pay your bills.”
Another trend Moss is seeing are restaurants opening up in smaller spaces. He points to Tangos II and the Polo Grill, both of which have returned to Vero Beach in the last year but in cozier quarters about half the size of the restaurants they left.
“You have to pay less rent and are better able to watch your costs,” he said. Among the restaurants in the pipeline that might be of interest to beachside residents is BrewGrrs Burgers & Brews, the anchor tenant at the newly remodeled Modern One center.
It was supposed to open in September and is said to be waiting for final approvals.
Also set to open by the end of the year is Pipa Movida, a tapas restaurant on U.S. 1, former home of the Hardwood Grille.