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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 3, 2020 4 months ago

Chain reaction: Restaurant’s coronavirus troubles shared by vendors

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Sarasota-Bradenton hospitality mainstay navigates crisis on many fronts.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Sleepless nights — not smothered nachos — are the top menu item at Gecko’s Grill and Pubs these days.

That’s a key part of how co-Founder Mike Quillen is approaching the coronavirus pandemic crisis. On a conference call recently with Gecko’s co-Founder Mike Gowan and some other Sarasota-Manatee area business leaders, Quillen asked, tongue-in-cheek, at the end of the call, “So is anyone getting any sleep?” Nervous laughter followed — it’s clear a good night of zzz's has been 86ed.

“This is tragic,” Quillen says. “Every single thing we do right now is to be sure we will be ready to open whenever this thing clears up. That’s the best thing I can do right now is to be there [when this over] for employees.”

The pandemic-induced drop at Gecko’s is seismic. Two locations in the Gecko’s Hospitality Group family of eateries, Dockside Waterfront Grill in Venice and the Gecko’s on State Road 70 in east Manatee County, have temporarily closed. Five Gecko’s pub locations remain open, with a slightly abbreviated menu for curbside pickup.

The result? Like most other restaurants, with no dining room and bar, sales have cratered. Companywide, Gecko’s is down somewhere between 70-90% over the same time in 2019, Quillen says. In correlation, the company has since let go of some 570 employees, getting by mostly on a crew of managers — who are doing everything, from washing pots and pans to taking phone orders.

Beyond lost tips and paychecks, the company is also illustrative of the devastating domino effect the coronavirus pandemic is having not only restaurants but also the supply and vendor chain. For years Gecko’s, which Quillen and Gowan founded in 1992, has prided itself on being community stewards, working with local farmers, beverage distributors and others.

File. Mike Gowan, left, and Mike Quillen, co-founded Gecko's in 1992.

Quillen is dipping into company reserves to buy food and other products and has shifted funds, such as allotments for linens and napkins, to other areas. He’s also been talking constantly with bankers, landlords and insurance brokers, and he plans to apply for federal loans under the CARES Act. “I’ve been on the phone all the time,” he says. “If it’s out there, we will apply for it.”

'Things are so fluid, it’s hard to plan for anything. But the pressure has led us to think creatively.' Tiffany Bailey, Honeyside Farm

One of the biggest dominoes to fall from the Gecko’s crisis is Honeyside Farms. The north Manatee County grower has supplied the restaurants with a variety of greens and produce for a decade. The cases, seasonally, vary from squash, zucchini and tomatoes to broccoli and cauliflower.

Pre-coronavirus, Honeyside would deliver 20 to 25 cases a week to each Gecko’s location. That load, says co-Owner Tiffany Bailey, covers about 60% of the total produce grown at Honeyside, a fifth-generation farm in Parrish. In the past few weeks, the orders have dropped to just a few cases per store.

Bailey says the toughest thing about the situation is the uncertainty — joining many others in that cry. “There’s a sense of worry about how long this thing will go on,” Bailey says.

On the flip side, she’s using the slowdown to think differently about how she can serve customers and even land new ones. “Things are so fluid; it’s hard to plan for anything,” Bailey says. “But the pressure has led us to think creatively.”

That includes increasing its harvest, prep, package and home delivery service to possibly area parking lots, to reach more customers. Local grocer Detwiler’s Farm Market, which has bought from Honeyside sparingly in the past, has increased orders too. “It’s our goal to stay creative and make it work,” Bailey says.

Make it work is also the mantra at another key Gecko’s supplier: Gold Coast Eagle Distributing. The Lakewood Ranch Anheuser-Busch wholesaler has been filling taps and bars at Gecko’s for years. “We’re going to support them any way we can,” Gold Coast President and Owner John Saputo says. “We’re going to get them whatever they want, whenever they want it.”

But like Honeyside, the drop in accounts from places like Gecko’s is crushing Gold Coast. One telling metric: Gold Coast, in the span of two weeks, has gone from delivering beverages to some 1,200 bars a day to fewer than 90. Three weeks into the crisis, Saputo says, the company, which did $172.49 million in revenue in 2019, was in the red.

“This thing is completely drastic to my customers,” says Saputo, who shifted employees of bar accounts to grocery stores. “It’s killing them. I’m just hoping we can all keep going and hang in there.”

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