Kearns Restaurant Group, despite a menu of risks, helped reinvent downtown Fort Myers with eight eateries. Its new Boathouse Tiki Bar & Grill now draws diners to east Lee County.
Buildings in downtown Fort Myers had been abandoned by failed businesses and the city was in the process of refurbishing the streetscape when the father-and-son duo of Daniel and Zak Kearns gambled bigtime in 2012.
They leased space at a deep discount, spent a few hundred thousand dollars and opened the original Ford’s Garage on First Street.
Hoping that paying homage to the local legacy of Henry Ford would draw diners, their strategy was met with success similar to its namesake’s invention of the assembly line. And like Henry Ford’s innovation, the Kearnses success model ever since has been to buck convention and motor ahead of trends.
Ford’s Garage quickly became a hotspot, for example, so they moved to secure other vacant First Street properties. In doing, so the team — despite the cannibalization risk — gradually turned downtown into their own epicurean incubator by opening six other restaurant concepts. The list includes Cabo’s Cantina, Firestone, The Lodge, Capone’s Coal Fired Pizza, SoHo Social House and Izzy’s Fish & Oyster.
“Typically, most restaurant groups won't open restaurants across the street from each other,” says Zak Kearns, vice president of Kearns Restaurant Group. But since "the concepts don't directly compete with each other," he adds, it provides options, not a glut.
Armed with early success downtown, Kearns Restaurant Group in 2013 expanded further, with two Ford’s Garage locations in Cape Coral and in Estero at Miramar Outlets, and its first waterfront The Boathouse Tiki Bar & Grill in Cape Coral.
Declining to disclose revenue, Zak Kearns says the collection of restaurants annually does “a healthy eight figures and growing” in gross revenue. That is thanks in no small part to the success of The Boathouse, formerly KC’s River Stop, which does about $7 million a year alone.
The Boathouse is also another example of the Kearns' ability to see opportunity through risk.
In that case, the family's hospitality success captured the attention of entrepreneur Brandon Mayer, who had purchased the Sweetwater Landing Marina on the Caloosahatchee River off State Road 31 in eastern Lee County. He approached Kearns about opening a second location of The Boathouse, on 4.4 acres adjacent to his planned marina renovation.
At four times the size of the original, Kearns invested $3 million in The Boathouse, an all open-air, Tiki hut-style restaurant complete with two bar areas, retail shop, a 12-by-8-foot TV, boat slips, a beach and even a swimming pool, which opened in early August.
“Where are you going to find 4.4 acres on the water that has 800 feet of dock, 16 finger slips, parking and a marina with a 250-boat dry storage? It doesn’t exist,” says Kearns. “We knew we had to build it.”
Located just south of the under-development town of Babcock Ranch, Kearns admits a destination restaurant that can seat 300 is ahead of the curve. But like that first Ford’s Garage, The Boathouse opened to crowds that far exceeded expectations. The restaurant employs 160, bringing the group’s total Lee County employment to more than 1,000.
Like many in hospitality, Kearns says staffing is the company’s greatest obstacle, but one it meets starting at the top. A quickly growing restaurant group provides ample advancement opportunity.
"The talent pool is a bit restricted because we're not in a big market," says Kearns. "We have been fortunate that we've found a lot of key people and we offer them health care and competitive salaries, so they want to stay with us.
Another key, he adds, has been creating a corporate culture that attracts quality people. “We've taken bartenders and put them into management positions," he says, "because they’ve grown with us and cross over from one concept to another."
And they’ll need to attract more. Mark Brown, a Kearns partner, is the expanding operator of Ford’s Garage. Based in Tampa, Brown is taking the concept national, having already opened 10 more locations including in Dearborn, Mich., home of the Ford Motor Co. A new store will open this fall in Lakeland. Ford’s Garage is licensed by Ford.
Plans are also in the works to take Capone’s national, and since he opened the new Boathouse, Kearns has been approached by other waterfront property owners. He’s open to more locations, but he’s also formulating other ideas.
“We always have an ear and an eye open to future locations for any of our concepts,” he says. “And there are still a few concepts I’d like to create.”