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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 3 years ago

Urban eats

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A onetime merchant marine, Andy Salyards started a restaurant business on impulse and instinct three years ago. How did he hit the big-time so quickly?
by: Bob Andelman Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Company. Urban Restaurant Group Industry. Hospitalty Key. Entrepreneur manages fast-growth internally in a rapidly growing neighborhood.

If housing prices in St. Petersburg seem out of hand, blame Andy Salyards.

It's people like the owner of the Urban Restaurant Group — Urban Brew & BBQ, Urban Comfort, Urban Deli & Draft (formerly Urban Provisions), Urban Creamery, and Urban Catering — who have made living in and around the city's downtown too damn desirable for their own good.

“I'm part of the problem,” Salyards says.

Yes, you are.

“I admit it,” he says, grinning sheepishly.

It might be hard for newcomers to believe, but there was a time when downtown St. Pete was home to just a handful of decent restaurants. Compare that to today, when there are dozens of great places to choose from, with new ones opening weekly (sometimes daily) and people packing the seats and parking spaces, seven days a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner, that it was bound to affect housing prices. More and more people want to live closer to the action.

Which brings us back to Salyards.

With five successful food concepts under his belt in just three years, Salyards, 33, his wife, Jill, and 3-year-old son are in the market for a new, bigger house in a more upscale neighborhood. But price inflation is blowing his mind.

Again, it's partly his fault.

If the smoked meats at Urban Brew & BBQ weren't so good... if the fried chicken at Urban Comfort wasn't so plump and crisp... if the pastrami sandwiches at Urban Deli & Draft weren't so zesty... and if the homemade ice cream at Urban Creamery wasn't so sweet... maybe this wouldn't be such an issue.

The Urban restaurants - which employ roughly 40 people - share several characteristics, despite very different menus: casual atmosphere, distinctive tastes, hearty servings, excellent service and house-brewed craft beer.

Salyards, a former merchant marine, and his wife came to St. Petersburg in 2012 when a dermatology residency opportunity presented itself to her.

“I was working remotely at a job back in California,” Salyards recalls, “I did that for about eight months and I saw that I needed to either find a job or create one. I jumped into the restaurant business because my wife and I talked about what we thought was the right concept and how we'd do things. I wrote a business plan about the space (that Urban Brew & BBQ occupies), even though it wasn't available. One day we were driving by it and there was a Realtor's sign on it, so I called. The idea, in retrospect, was like, 'Holy crap, that was crazy!'”

'Short window'
Salyards says he was both hurt and helped by approaching the restaurant business without any background in it.

“It hurt me not knowing fundamental things,” he says. “I had to learn them all. In other ways, it's really helped. I researched why restaurants fail at such a high percentage. And what I found was that the barriers to entry are really low. The No. 1 reason for failure is lack of business acumen. Anybody can cook. People think, 'I know how to make food; I can run a restaurant. It's easy-peasy.'”

What many don't think much about is the importance of service, in equal measure or greater than the food itself. Get treated poorly in a place just once these days in St. Pete, and a customer doesn't have a reason to go back and be mistreated a second time. Competition for diners is too great.

“I'd say your max is two times to make an impression,” Salyards says. “With a lot of folks, it's just once. Rarely do people who are into craft beer go and try the same thing again and again and again. They want to try everything. Any time a town is moving into a foodie centric place, which St. Pete is, you want to try everything. And once you try everything, then you'll go back to the ones that you like. We have a short window to make a good impression on people.”

Good eats
Salyards signed his first restaurant lease on April 1, 2013. He opened the doors of Urban Brew & BBQ less than three months later. “We kept the hood, and everything else we got rid of,” he says.

And by “we” he means himself. Salyards built his own tabletops and long bar, buying the oak, cherry and maple at a liquidation sale for $400. He did much of the other remodeling himself as well, including the wall made of old bricks, fabricating everything but the picnic tables for the patio he opened later. (When he opened Urban Comfort, the only thing he had time to build himself were the picnic tables.)

Urban Brew & BBQ was a quick, buzzy success with its smoked meats, and less than two years later, Salyards opened his second restaurant, Urban Comfort. This time, in addition to serving food and somebody else's brand of craft beer, Salyards hired brewmaster Franz Rothschadl and produced his own beer.

Urban Provisions opened in November 2015, a work in progress; in July 2016, it closed for two weeks for rebranding and emerged as Urban Deli & Draft.

Both Provisions and Salyards' next concept to open, Urban Creamery, were not entirely food plays.

“Provisions and Creamery were more real estate plays,” he admits, “in that you cannot find spaces in town now that have a functioning kitchen; those things don't go to market. And if they do go to market, they're totally overpriced. With Provisions, I found out about the space, a former restaurant, before it went to market. I didn't know what I wanted to do with it, but I said, 'Let's jump on it now, and we'll figure it out later.'”

When Provisions opened, Salyards initially rented out most of the kitchen space to another business. In the last couple of months, that business moved on, giving Salyards its kitchen space back, which led to a re-thinking of the concept, turning Urban Provisions into Urban Deli & Drafts.

Urban Creamery was perhaps the least planned concept in the group.

“I started trolling Craigslist every night for businesses,” Salyards admits. “Opportunities — maybe that's a better word for it. I saw this location and thought it was a great location. The new Chihuly Museum will be across the street, which I didn't know at the time. It was a lucky coincidence. There's another apartment complex going up there. The challenge was that it doesn't have a hood, so we're really limited on what concept we can do out of that space.”

Salyards heard about a place in St. Augustine called Cousteau's Waffle and Milkshake Bar, so he drove north to check it out. The biggest difference with Urban Creamery is that it makes its own ice cream, which it also sells at Urban Comfort.

“It makes sense that there would be a ton of ice cream places here in St. Pete, but there aren't,” Salyards says. “I always try to find holes.”

Know your name
Brand consultant and strategist Jenn Greacen helped Salyards develop the Urban brand and built the Urban Comfort website. The current president of the American Advertising Federation of Tampa Bay, Greacen has worked alongside Salyards on the St. Petersburg Grand Central District board of directors.

“Andy is a great example of the quintessential, no-boundaries entrepreneur,” says Greacen, also the owner and founder of Clear Labs, a creative collaboration and co-working space in the district. “He's a great visionary, and he sees the opportunity here in the district and in St. Petersburg. Coming from an outside market, he sees the gem of an opportunity that's here so clearly. He wants to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. He sees opportunity. He picks big leaps. He's all about the growth of the community. He wants to see things happen fast.”

As Urban has developed and opened new outlets, Salyards has developed a philosophy that ties them all together.

“It's the GM model; I want to service you from Buick to Cadillac,” he says. “That's what we're trying to do with the different food types. We have an overarching commonality that we do things from scratch, and you know there's some things you're always going to get at each location that have a lot more to do with the fundamentals.”

On the staffing side, Salyards is developing a model not unlike an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). He wants to keep good chefs and employees within the company and figures to do that by letting them earn, or buy equity, in the company. The first to do so was Camerin Collins, a bartender at Urban Brew & BBQ that bought into Urban Comfort at its opening and is now a part-owner.

“Our goal with Urban overall as a brand is to be employee-owned by 2020, and I think we're going to hit that goal way ahead of schedule,” Salyards says. “People appreciate Urban because of locality and the small business aspect of it, and knowing you're going to see mostly the same people when you walk in. If we can make the people who are the face of the brand and that have put in the sweat to get it to where it is, to also be an owner, they earned it and they deserve it. I think it increases our engagement on our employee base, which can turn into an ownership base.”

(This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Andy Salyards.)

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