Mike Gowan and Mike Quillen, approaching 25 years in a grueling industry, remain committed to finding ways to improve. One key behind the strategy goes beyond the restaurant.
Company. Gecko's Hospitality Group Industry. Hospitality, restaurants Key. Company has expanded methodically over 25 years.
Mike Quillen remembers the days, sometimes wistfully, when he and his longtime friend and business partner, Mike Gowan, ran their fledgling restaurant business out of their trucks.
That was in 1992.
Now closing in on 25 years in business, Sarasota-based Gecko's Hospitality Group long ago outgrew its gritty startup days. The company has six locations under its flagship Gecko's name, plus three other restaurants under other brand names, and one bar and package store. It has a corporate office, with a human resources team, a food and beverage director and other senior level executives and department heads. The company, finally, has more than 500 employees, which makes it one of the largest privately held companies in the Sarasota-Bradenton region.
“That's what I'm most proud of,” says Gowan. “We have given a lot of people a lot of opportunities.”
Gowan and Quillen also have been given a lot of opportunities — from restaurant owners across the area. Some want to get out of the industry, others want to be part of the community-service minded business model Gowan and Quillen have refined over the years. The duo fields calls at least once a week for potential partnerships or acquisitions.
“A lot of opportunities jut present themselves,” Quillen says. “We don't seek these out.”
The partners recently bit on two calls. One, last October, was to buy the Dry Dock Waterfront Grill, a mainstay on Longboat Key since 1989. A second, in April, was for Marker 4 in Venice, part of the Fisherman's Wharf Marina complex. The company rebranded Marker 4 as Dockside Waterfront Grill, and it kept the name the same for the Dry Dock on Longboat.
Quillen, 57, and Gowan, 58, decline to discuss terms of the deals, only to say being on the water was a big factor.
“When you have an opportunity to buy something on the water you have to pounce on it,” Quillen says. “They aren't making any more of it.”
Almost as remarkable as the longevity of Gecko's is the durability of Gowan and Quillen's friendship and business relationship. In a high-turnover industry, the duo says they have survived mostly because of a high trust level.
“You have to use each other's strengths for the good of the company,” Quillen said.
Here's a look at Gecko's history, recession survival tactics, growth strategy and how Gowan and Quillen address myriad challenges in the hospitality sector.
Gowan, a Sarasota native, and Quillen, who moved to town with his family was a young boy, met when they were 10. They hung out a lot and played tennis together, and later, when they were teenagers, they got valet jobs parking cars for a few hip restaurants on Siesta Key. They were a determined duo, Quillen didn't even have a driver's license when they started.
In 1992, they opened the first Gecko's, in the Landings, a commercial plaza about five miles south of downtown Sarasota. The partners, with a $120,000 loan from Quillen's dad, wanted to make the debut Gecko's a friendly, neighborhood Cheers-like place. Fifteen-hour workdays were the norm for the first few years, where they worked on everything from menus to supplies to setting up weekly bingo games.
Growth since then has come like it does in the Olympics, every four years. A second store came in 1998 and a third store in 2002. Those location are in Manatee County. A fourth Gecko's, on Clark Road in Sarasota, debuted in 2006. Locations five and six came in 2010 and 2014, respectively.
In 2013, they launched another concept, S'macks Burgers & Shakes, which is a historical play off Smack, a popular Sarasota diner from the 1940s and 1950s. While Gecko's offers table service, S'macks is in the fast-growing quick-service segment. The first S'macks is on Bee Ridge Road, near U.S. 41. A second planned S'macks, in downtown Sarasota, is part of a mixed-use project that broke ground in September.
Expansion strategy and the future
Gowan and Quillen are driven to do deals and expand not only by the restaurant's potential, but also by the possibility of owning the land. They've financed purchases with their own money and bank loans, working with a small handful of local community banks.
The land holdings portfolio the pair controls includes the S'macks on Bee Ridge Road; the Red Barn Bar, also on Bee Ridge; a Gecko's on Fruitville Road and a Gecko's on Hillview Road; and the Dry Dock on Longboat Key. The pair paid $1.8 million for the Fruitville Road Gecko's in 2014, according to property records, and it paid about $500,000 for the S'macks location, a former gas station.
Buying land in addition to the eatery is counterintuitive to bigger restaurants chains, where the strategy is to put money into the locations, not the dirt.
“You obviously tie up a lot of capital,” Quillen says. “If you are going to open 20 locations one after the other it doesn't make sense.”
But Gowan and Quillen, thinking about the time far off into the future when they aren't in the restaurant business anymore, want to have something else tangible. That's why land is a focus of deals.
Like many others in hospitality, when people started to eat out less often, Gowan and Quillen had to find ways to cut expenses without hurting its strong customer service reputation.
One spot, early on, was the company moved from an outside commercial cleaning business to paying employees to clean restaurants. That move, says Quillen, was good for three victories. It saved the company money; it provided a way to get employees more hours to make up for slower days; and it gave the company more control over an important, but sometimes overlooked, aspect of running a thriving restaurant business. A fourth bonus: Going inside for cleaning gave managers more authority to hold employees accountable for keeping the place clean.
“The recession made us better,” Quillen says. “It had a cleansing effect. We had to get the food out faster. We had to work harder, and work smarter.”
The national debate about wages, overtime and labor regulations, to Quillen and Gowan, is something of a solution in search of a problem.
“What might fit in one place in the country,” Quillen says, “might not work locally.”
Take the latest federal overtime regulations, which call for an increase in the salary baseline that determines who gets overtime. Federal officials say the bump, from $23,660 to $47,476, is designed to give people on the lower end of the wage scale more money.
But Quillen says since Gecko's is already on the higher end of the pay scale for its market and industry, the rule will have the reverse impact. Many salaried Gecko's employees might be switched to an hourly wage. The overtime rules, pending several lawsuits from pro-business groups, could go into effect Dec. 1.
The company's top general managers, beyond any regulation, are some of the highest-paid GMs in the area among competitors, says Quillen.
“We want our managers to make more than other managers,” Quillen says.
And the hourly staff is also paid above average wages, with multiple incentives to grow within the company. All of that, says Quillen, is for retention and stability and to create a great place to work — not for regulations.
Quillen and Gowan are active in statewide and national restaurant trade groups to battle back against what they consider over-regulation in the industry.
The dedication to something deeper than their business, says Anne Rollings, a marketing and branding executive with the company, is a big factor behind their success.
“There are so many other restaurant owners who let things slip,” Rollings says. “But these two feed off each other.”