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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 3 years ago

'On the map'

Entrepreneur Stephen Schrutt has opened four restaurant concepts in St. Petersburg in the last five years. It's part of a plan to create a destination block.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

When Stephen Schrutt built The Avenue Eat/Drink on First Avenue South in downtown St. Petersburg five years ago, his dream was to create a destination block.

He built the American burger gastro bar next door to a pizza place and World of Beer. It was the perfect setup — or so he thought.

But two pizza places cycled through the space next door and the World of Beer location eventually closed. Undaunted, the 38-year-old CEO and founder of Hunger & Thirst Restaurant Group, Schrutt looked at the obstacles as an opportunity, not a permanent setback. He has since backed up the opportunity with a significant investment.

First, when a space opened up in the Edge District, he decided to open up a family-focused concept — Kings Street Food Corner — that serves hot dogs, grilled cheese, milk shakes and beer. The place is named after his English bulldog, King. Next, he bought out the place that houses the pizza joint and turned it into Proper, an idea he had been brewing for a while for a barbecue spot.

As Proper was being built, Schrutt took another chance, taking over the World of Beer space. He wanted to do something different there, and something other than beer. “There had to be a reason to come that was more than just alcohol,” he says.

That led to Park & Rec, a bar with the motto that “youth has no age.” Park & Rec, getting a lot of buzz in the St. Petersburg hipster community, is packed with games such as Pac-Man, air hockey and Skee-Ball. It features convenience store-like coolers with tallboy beers in cans and focuses on local beers on draft instead of a ton of craft brews, like World of Beer. It has a limited menu, so as not to pull away from the two restaurants next door.

Park & Rec opened two weeks after Schrutt opened Proper last fall. Though Schrutt says he's exhausted from all of the hard work, it's not time to slow down. “This has been tough, four places in five years,” Schrutt says.

And now Schrutt says he can truly take advantage of being a destination block. “We're able to do that this time around because we're under one umbrella,” he says.

A few weekends ago, Schrutt came out to the block on a Friday night and slowly felt a smile spread over his face. “That's what makes me happy,” he says, “is when the block is packed.”

The biggest challenge will be to keep the energy flowing to the block and to make sure each concept can hold its identity. That way people can enjoy all concepts in one evening. It's what makes Schrutt's concept unique, he says, that there's enough diversity in atmospheres that a customer can hit The Avenue, Proper and Park & Rec all in one night.

Even with the harried pace, Schrutt is constantly looking ahead to what's next. “Your eyes only look forward for a reason,” he says. “If you look back, you'll get stuck in the mud.”

For one, Schrutt is looking forward to launching brunch menus at The Avenue and at Proper within the next month. He's also focusing more on on-site and off-site catering opportunities.

Schrutt, who grew up in Tampa, never gave much thought to living in St. Petersburg. But he always wanted to open a restaurant and bar. And six years ago, when he was running a bar in Tampa's Westchase neighborhood, he became intrigued by what was happening in downtown St. Petersburg. His dad loaned him money to open The Avenue.

“Opportunity ... that's what brought me over the bridge,” Schrutt says. “We love that this market is growing and becoming a focused city — we want to be part of that. We want to be on the map.”

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