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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009 12 years ago

COVER UPDATE: More, Please

Steve Martin's chain of seven Tex-Mex restaurants on the Gulf Coast defied the recession in 2009. He is aiming for more of the same in 2010.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Gulf Coast franchise restaurant operator Steve Martin saw the region's unemployment crisis up close in October, right before he opened his seventh Tijuana Flats eatery.

That's when Martin set an unofficial record for most job applicants prior to opening a new store, with 300 people seeking work. “It was nice to have all those applications,” Martin says, “but it was also sad to see what was happening in the economy.”

Martin says the pool of applicants included at least one mother-daughter team and several others from non-restaurant professions seeking a job to aid in the rebound process. “I had people I know calling me and asking if they could wash dishes,” says Martin.

The humbling experience aside, Martin says he told his managers doing the hiring — for 25 positions — that there was a clear opportunity to staff the store with the best possible customer-service oriented employees.

The store, in a strip mall on Clark Road in Sarasota, opened in October. At 1,800 square feet, the store is one of the smaller ones in Martin's network of Tijuana Flats restaurants, which includes one other one in Sarasota County and five in Pinellas County.

To make up for the small inside, Martin built an outdoor seating area, which is something of a novelty amid the strip malls of the local neighborhood. He's planning to hold events on the patio, such as setting up a weekly Happy Hour where customers can bring their dogs.

“We've exceeded out expectations,” Martin reported in mid-November, after the store had been open for a month. “We have been overwhelmed with great comments.”

Martin says his other Tijuana Flats restaurants, which each generate about $1 million a year in annual revenues, proved to be somewhat recession-resistant throughout 2009. Monthly sales growth is down from what it was in 2005 and 2006, but it's still up, even if it's just a few percentage points in some stores.

Martin attributes some of that success to Maitland-based Tijuana Flats' quirky culture of selling wacky-named hot sauces and keeping a funky internal vibe.

Martin's newest Tijuana Flats in Sarasota, in a shuttered CD store, also fits a key goal for Martin going into 2010: Finding locations that can seize on the rent advantages tenants are getting in the slumping commercial real estate market. He even hired a Jupiter Beach real estate firm to assist him in aggressively find landlords that are desperate to have a paying tenant.

As it is, Martin is already scouting three locations for 2010 store openings, including one in Bradenton and two in Pinellas County, in Seminole and Palm Harbor. He hopes to open restaurants in at least two of those locations in 2010.

Martin says he has another reason for seeking stores in already existing strip malls: No one is building new shopping centers. “I don't see too much new retail coming on line yet,” says Martin. “That's still a few years out.”

— Mark Gordon

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