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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 4 months ago

Restaurant Rebirth

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Owning a nice place to eat is about more than the staples, good eats and great service. For one enterprising eatery entrepreneur, the brand has to be perfect.  
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

When Eve Alves bought the property that once housed the Jacaranda restaurant on Sanibel in 2017, she was ready to create a space truly her own. So she gutted everything and completely redid the restaurant, opening it up as the Jac Sanibel Island Bar & Grille in May 2018.

“When you walk into the Jac you see me,” says Alves, 50, a native of Florida who attended culinary school in London. “From the floor to the tables to the menu, everything there shouts Eve Alves. It’s not someone else’s brand; it’s my brand.”

Taking this step was important to her based on a lesson from her previous restaurant experience in the area. In 2008, she purchased Luna Rossa Italian Grill at the Miromar Outlets in Estero. It was a turnkey restaurant making money. But it wasn’t her concept or vision.

She ran it for several years. But when the outlet center started losing stores and customers after Coconut Point and Gulf Coast Town Center came along, she knew it was time to think about a new venture. That’s when she bought the Jac.

“It was a diamond in the rough when I saw it,” Alves says. “But when I walked in, I just envisioned what you see today.” She spent around $800,000 to redo and replace everything, from the electrical and plumbing systems to the bathrooms and kitchen equipment.

“It’s like when you have a dress, and you think you’re just going to fix one thing, but once you pull the thread the whole dress falls apart,” she says. “But if you’re going to do it, then do it right, and start fresh. There are no shortcuts when you own a restaurant.”

Owning rather than renting her restaurant space (as she did at Luna Rossa) made it easier to make that sizable investment. “If you’re in a strip center somewhere, and you invested $800,000 in a buildout, and you choose not to renew your lease, you can’t take the tile off the floor and take it with you,” Alves says. “But it had to be done here; it wasn’t a question of we’ll wait and do this later on.”

The Jac centers around a scratch kitchen dining concept, where everything is made fresh without preservatives or artificial ingredients. “We don’t even have a freezer in the restaurant because everything gets delivered on a daily basis,” Alves says. Her sister, Harriette Mattson (a baker who owned Harriette’s Restaurant in Key Largo for more than three decades), makes the restaurant’s desserts, while her son, Nicholas, works in the kitchen.

Some guests still expect the restaurant to look like its slightly stuffier previous iteration, which can cause some confusion — and is another lesson learned for Alves. “People knew it as the Jac, but what they don’t know is that it’s under new management with new food and new everything,” she says. “Moving forward, I would never [again] name a restaurant based on its predecessor.”

Good reviews, coupled with recognition like a spot on local food critic Jean Le Boeuf’s list of best restaurants on Sanibel, help show diners what’s new and improved. And with one year of operation down, Alves is ready to take on the upcoming winter season.

'I’m a survivor, not a quitter. I don’t throw in the towel. I will do it and do it and do it until it’s perfect, and to me your experience at the Jac has to be perfect from the time you walk in until the time you walk out.' Eve Alves, Jac Sanibel Island Bar & Grille

She took her time reopening the restaurant’s popular Back Bar area, which debuted in April. “I wanted to be known as a restaurant with a bar, not a bar with a restaurant,” she says. “And we had a year for us to get out all the kinks as a brand-new restaurant.”

One area that’s still a challenge: attracting good staff to a barrier island restaurant. “I’m really picky about who I hire, but we have some pieces of the puzzle,” Alves says. She knows she has to pay “top dollar” for good line cooks and dishwashers. She also started an unusual perk: Employees who prove they will last get their tolls onto the island paid.

Alves is starting to see more repeat customers at the Jac — validating her hard work, attention to detail and focus on cleanliness. “I’m a survivor, not a quitter,” she says. “I don’t throw in the towel. I will do it and do it and do it until it’s perfect, and to me your experience at the Jac has to be perfect from the time you walk in until the time you walk out. You only have one time to make a first impression.

“This is my baby,” she adds. “I got to create it, and it’s still being created every day.”

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