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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 15, 2010 10 years ago

Out of the Rough

Two hospitality industry entrepreneurs think they're on to the next big thing in sports and family entertainment. They think big.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Charles Leduc and Chris Poulos met in a fantasy football league in 2002, where the pair discovered they shared a common dream: To run their own business — a hybrid sports bar, family entertainment center and golf gathering joint.

In classic entrepreneurial style, Leduc and Poulos sketched out their plans on a cocktail napkin. The dreams revolved around big-screen, high-end virtual golf machines, where people could play some of the world's most famous courses in the comfort of a sports bar. They would also provide other virtual entertainment, including car-racing simulations.

But what the duo didn't sketch out, from underestimating the volume of local competition to how to navigate the most excruciating small business-lending environment in decades, nearly derailed their dreams. “We made a lot of mistakes,” concedes Poulos.

The good news: Most of the mistakes seem to be behind Leduc and Poulos. And now their business, Manatee County-based CaddyShanks, is poised to step into rare territory on the Gulf Coast because it's in expansion mode.

Indeed, Leduc, a Realtor, and Poulos, a mortgage broker, plan to open three CaddyShanks in the next six months, including one in the Westshore district of Tampa and one in Brandon. A third CaddyShanks is scheduled to open in the Baldwin Park neighborhood of Orlando by Christmas.

“No one else is really doing this in Florida,” says Poulos. “We sat down and worked rally hard to figure out how this [concept] could make money.”

The formula, Leduc and Poulos decided, eliminates food. CaddyShanks allows customers to order pizzas from a restaurant next door, but the location itself has no kitchen. The bar serves beer, wine and limited mixed drinks.

Leduc and Poulos, who worked in restaurants for 25 years before going into real estate, say dropping food eliminates all kinds of hassles, including inventory, staffing and decreased margins. “This is golf first,” says Leduc.

And the golf, says Leduc, is what will make or break the business. Through its high-tech golf simulators, CaddyShanks offers customers the opportunity to play more than 60 championship courses, including Sawgrass and Pebble Beach. Moreover, CaddyShanks has simulated cars, 3D TVs and interactive video games. Games cost between $30 and $40 an hour.

Leduc and Poulos opened the first CaddyShanks in January, in a high-traffic strip mall off University Parkway. Lack of capital was an issue from the beginning. “We underestimated how much we needed when we opened,” Leduc says.

It didn't help that the duo was rejected by at least 30 local and regional banks for loans — even though Poulos says they would've put down $125,000 for a $250,000 loan. They ultimately secured a loan with SunTrust Bank.

Other growing pains followed. The entrepreneurs regret, for example, that they invested little in marketing, because not too many potential customers got the concept at first. Plans for a virtual golf summer camp also fizzled.

Still, Leduc and Poulos exude confidence. They are even renting an apartment in Orlando, so one of the partners could be near the new store. The eventual goal, says Poulos, is to turn the four CaddyShanks into a blueprint for a national franchise model.

“We want to get off the ground fast,” says Poulos. “We want to have 25 stores before any one else really gets into this.”

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