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Entrepreneurs
Business Observer Friday, Dec. 2, 2011 11 years ago

A New World

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An entrepreneur who built a $200 million business has started over in a different industry. It's a gamble that could test his patience — and his wallet.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A zeal for systems, processes and easily repeatable procedures helped Jim Abrams build one of the largest home services franchise firms in the country.

Abrams was actually so successful at Sarasota-based Clockwork Home Services that the largest energy supplier in Great Britain, Centrica, bought the firm in 2010 for $183 million. The one downside to the sale: It put Abrams, then 63, out of a job for the first time in 46 years.

Now Abrams is back in business, less than a year after he left Clockwork. Only he traded his plunger for a po'boy.

A submarine-style sandwich on a baguette, sometimes with seafood, the po'boy is the centerpiece of Duvals New World Cafe — Abrams' first significant post-Clockwork business venture. The restaurant, which opened in early November in downtown Sarasota, is a sizeable change for Abrams from Clockwork, which grew to $215 million in annual revenues before it slipped in the recession.

“It's exciting, entertaining and challenging,” says Abrams, who is joined in the venture with his wife, Kathleen Abrams, and local restaurateurs Wes and Ceci Duval. “But I'm enjoying it.”

The goal is to find a niche for New World Cafe in multiple locations, though Abrams acknowledges the restaurant industry is rife with expensive failures. Abrams and his business partners eventually want to franchise the New World Cafe concept, which they say is high-end food with high-quality service.

Abrams plans to use the same commitment to procedures at New World Cafe that led to the success with Clockwork, which had three home services divisions: heating and air-conditioning repair; electrical; and plumbing.

Past repeatable processes, Abrams says the concept is centered on technology. For example, he envisions a time when the menus are iPads, where customers can read choices in a variety of languages. The plan is also to utilize cloud-based software to run the restaurant's pay systems.

Abrams would like to open a second restaurant under the Duval's brand name within six months, possibly in Bradenton, and a third location, in Orlando, within a year. If those locations do well, franchising could come next.

But the first challenge is to build one successful restaurant.

Jim and Kathleen Abrams bought the building that houses Duval's, 1435 Main St., Sarasota, in February through their venture capital firm, AngelShot. The couple paid $449,000 for the 2,575-square-foot building, according to Sarasota County property records.

The Abrams spent at least another $200,000 on a major renovation of the building, which was built in 1926. The revamped restaurant now has a bar and a redone kitchen. A television was installed on a back wall, where customers can see their meals being prepared.

Jim and Kathleen Abrams say the Duvals are great food people, but their lack of business experience hurt them in the past, when they bounced around various locations. “They are not good business people,” says Jim Abrams, “which they are the first to admit.”

The Duvals nonetheless developed a following in the area. Their po'boy sandwiches and bread pudding have been especially big hits. Jim and Kathleen Abrams were fans, too, which is why they reached out to the Duvals.

Jim Abrams says the first few weeks have been both tiring and a source of validation they are headed in the right direction. “We are exceeding early budgets,” says Abrams. “We are doing better than expected.”

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