A small restaurant near Henry Ford's winter home in Fort Myers is counting on nostalgia to turn it into the next big restaurant concept. It won the automaker's blessing.
ll roads lead back to Dearborn, Mich.
Daniel Kearns found that out when word of his small restaurant in downtown Fort Myers spread to the headquarters of Ford Motor Co. via a network of the automaker's retirees.
But that was far from anyone's concern when Kearns opened Ford's Garage in 2011, a 150-seat restaurant serving burgers and craft beers in the redeveloped River District of Fort Myers. “There's a niche for history and heritage,” Kearns says.
That's because the Edison & Ford Winter Estates are located just one mile away from downtown Fort Myers. The winter residences of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are now a museum and host tourists from all over the world.
Kearns, who's started some 40 restaurants over a three-decade career, had previously used the Edison name for a restaurant at the Fort Myers Country Club. That turned out to be so successful that he decided to use the Ford name for his next eatery.
Kearns says neither he nor business partners Zak Kearns, Mike McGuigan or Marc Brown expected the automaker to bless their concept. But in July, the automaker agreed to grant the restaurateurs the rights to use the iconic blue oval logo and Ford's brand imagery, including historical photographs, images of vehicles and real Model T automobiles.
“We want to make Ford's Garage a national brand,” says Brown, a partner in the first restaurant who is building the fourth Ford's Garage in the Tampa suburb of Brandon. “We are exploring franchising and we are open to other options.”
Blue in their veins
Kearns says he and his partners, including son, Zak, and wife, Nicole Gray, labored over the decision to open the first Ford's Garage in 2011. The recession was still fresh in everyone's minds and
downtown Fort Myers had undergone a disruptive beautification program. “The whole downtown was torn apart,” he recalls.
But the restaurant on First Street was a big hit with locals with touches like famous local names attached to each menu item. For example, the Mayor Randy Henderson is a Black Angus burger with cheddar, apple wood smoked bacon, bourbon barbecue sauce on a brioche bun. “It just took off,” Kearns says.
Based on the success of the first restaurant, the partners decided to open another one across the Caloosahatchee River in Cape Coral in July 2013. More than 50,000 cars pass by the restaurant on Cape Coral Parkway each day, Kearns says.
Later in October, a Ford's Garage opened at Miromar Outlets in Estero, confirming that the concept could work outside of Fort Myers. “That store was terrific,” Kearns says.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Ford retirees live in Southwest Florida and they started noticing the restaurants. “I was concerned about the trademark,” says Peter Gough, a former international marketing executive with Ford who retired to Naples. About 300 Ford retirees in Naples meet every two weeks, and many of them travel to Dearborn for the once-a-month gathering at corporate headquarters.
Ford executives couldn't be reached to discuss the deal, but Kearns and Brown say they were cordial when they dialed the downtown restaurant a year ago. Ford didn't use heavy-handed tactics as you might expect from such a big corporation, such as a “cease and desist” letter from the automaker's legal department.
“The way they explained it to us is that they had some retirees in the area who had seen our place, even some Ford family members,” Brown says. “Their initial contact with us was 'Hey, we know what you're doing and we've gotten some positive feedback.'”
Fact is, Ford has never granted any restaurant operator a license to use its logo. “We have to be very careful,” says Kearns, noting that retirees will be on the lookout as new restaurants open (Kearns plans to offer Ford retirees a special discount). “Blue runs in their veins,” he chuckles.
Big expansion plans
Terms of the deal between Ford and the Fort Myers restaurateurs remain undisclosed, but Brown and Kearns say the company executives in Dearborn were encouraging. “They were so nice there,” Kearns says.
Hammering out details of the deal took several months. “They have a very structured approach to how they handle things like that,” says Brown. “There's a lot of moving parts.”
Kearns says the negotiations were never antagonistic. “It was never adversarial,” he says. They negotiated with John Nens, Ford's executive in charge of global brand licensing and corporate identity.
While Ford has to approve major decisions, the restaurateurs say the automaker isn't micromanaging their business. “They're not trying to tell us how to run our restaurants,” Brown says.
The partners tasked Brown to spearhead the development of restaurants nationwide. “My opinion is that we can be 15 to 20 [restaurants] in the next three to five years, but we can do more than that,” Brown says.
Although the group is considering a franchise model, licensing and joint ventures are also possibilities, Brown says. “There's always a possibility to do a partnership with another group with a national presence,” Brown says.
Developing restaurants such as the one in Brandon for its own account is also an option for the Fort Myers group. “From a financial standpoint, we're pretty well positioned to manage our growth,” Brown says.
For now, Kearns and Brown are sorting through the flood of interest and publicity they've received since the Ford licensing deal was announced. “The Detroit Free Press just ran an article yesterday,” Brown says, still sounding surprised by the positive outcome. “I don't think any of us went into this thinking that we could build a national brand.”
Company. Ford's Garage (FG Restaurant Group) Industry. Hospitality Key. Small enterprises can do business with corporate giants.