‘19th Hole’ sinks along with co-owner’s hopes


Only five months after opening its doors, the 19th Hole Virtual Golf Bar and Grill closed on Friday night, ending the latest failed attempt to run a food-and-beverage business on the former site of The Patio restaurant in downtown Vero.

Is anyone surprised?

Well, yeah.

Certainly, Tom Vallett – a Sea Oaks seasonal resident and 19th Hole’s co-owner who funded the venture, investing a significant sum of money to renovate, reconfigure and re-equip the outdated 5,000-square-foot building, purchase three top-shelf multi-sport simulators, and lease the .67-acre property. He didn’t see this coming.

Nor did the property owner, Boca Raton restaurant broker Athan “Tom” Prakas, who bought the site from the family of Vero Beach pioneer Waldo Sexton in February 2022 for $600,000 and was collecting a sizable monthly rent.

And, of course, there was 19th Hole operations manager Shawn Steele and his 34 employees, all of whom learned of the establishment’s fate just days before the closure.

None of them could’ve expected the end to come so soon, given the financial investment made and the promise of better fall and winter days ahead.

How could they?

Nobody opens a restaurant-type business in Vero Beach in April, at the end of this rapidly growing community’s busy season, and closes in September, just before our seasonal residents and visitors begin to return.

Almost nobody, anyway.

But Vallett was given little choice after the 19th Hole managing partner Bob Gruber, a former local golf pro who had pitched him the idea of opening a virtual-golf bar and grill in Vero Beach, decided to abandon the business.

In a statement released to Vero Beach 32963 on Monday, Vallett wrote that he deeply regretted and was saddened by the closing of the fledgling establishment, noting the “passion and financial resources” he poured into the place.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “certain decisions were made outside of my control that affected the business and have forced me to make a difficult decision.”

Vallett emphasized that the closure had nothing to do with the efforts of Steele and his staff, whom he praised, or even the business plan.

Reached by phone Monday, Vallett said he did not want to comment on Gruber’s actions, but his tone made it clear that he was disappointed the 19th Hole didn’t get a chance to operate during the fall, winter and spring months, when many local businesses see their biggest profits.

“It’s just one of those things that happen in business sometimes,” Vallett said, acknowledging that he provided the bulk of the capital to back Gruber’s venture.

Last Friday, hours before the 19th Hole closed with one final comedy show, Steele said he was stunned when Gruber – a week earlier, without warning or explanation – announced that he was done.

“He said he was going to Vegas,” Steele said.

Gruber, a former golf director at The Moorings and head pro at Riomar Country Club, did not respond to voice and text messages left on his mobile phone Monday.

So, as this week began, the real reason for Gruber’s hasty exit was unknown, though rumors, ignited by social-media posts about the 19th Hole closing, continued to swirl throughout the local restaurant community.

Was he dissatisfied with the direction the 19th Hole was headed, financially? Did he no longer believe it would be as profitable as he had hoped? Or was there some personal issue with which he was dealing?

Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that Vallett, 69 and retired, had no interest in running a restaurant. In fact, he said Prakas was already “actively” looking for a new tenant to lease the property.

“It’s a shame they couldn’t give it more time,” said Billy Moss, a local Lambert Commercial Real Estate agent who brokered the sale of The Patio from the Sextons to Prakas, and then put Prakas and Gruber together.

“If you’re getting into the restaurant business, you need to plan for 12 to 24 months before you can expect to make any real money,” he added, “Very few restaurants take off right away.”

True, the 19th Hole had critics, many of whom cited higher prices for food and drinks, and the closed-off, disconnected feel of the place – with the bar, two dining rooms and simulator room all separated by walls.

But much of the social-media criticism was inane, particularly those from commenters complaining because the newly configured 19th Hole didn’t retain the ambiance of The Patio, which hadn’t drawn anything resembling regular crowds since before the Los Angeles Dodgers moved their spring-training headquarters to Arizona.

While The Patio, once a popular Vero Beach gathering place and local landmark built in the 1930s, had enjoyed stretches of success over the years with different tenants, the restaurant mostly has struggled since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

Among those tenants was Leanne Kelleher, The Tides owner and chef who ventured to the mainland and put together a strong six-month showing during the 2012-13 season. She was unable to attract enough business through the summer months to remain viable, however, and the Sextons allowed her to break her two-year lease after the first year.

Kelleher was The Patio’s fourth tenant in five years.

Then, Orlando restaurant manager Bill Brown came to town, believing he could revive The Patio. But he shut down in April 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, after an up-and-down, five-year run.

The property’s ownership has changed, and so has the building’s interior. It’s no longer The Patio, even if it still looks the same on the outside.

But it doesn’t need to be.

Though business had slowed as expected during the summer, when unusually oppressive heat prevented people from enjoying the outdoor patio, Steele said the 19th Hole was “pretty well received” when it opened, as the simulators were attracting customers.

He recently had launched a Sunday brunch buffet and started bringing in comedy shows, both of which were becoming popular, and he was planning to use the simulators to allow local players to compete in Tiger Woods-sponsored virtual-golf tournaments this fall.

He was optimistic about the establishment’s future, shrugging off political nonsense from the local Moms For Liberty chapter, which falsely claimed on its Facebook page that “progressive liberal censorship squads” were encouraging boycotts of the 19th Hole.

“I’m torn up about it,” Steele said of the closure.

He should be.

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