David Cotrone didn't know what a smoothie was in 2007 before he and his wife, Dawn Cotrone, bought a Smoothie King franchise in west Bradenton.
And Cotrone figured since he didn't know a smoothie, other people were novices, too. So he delivered hundreds of smoothies — free — to anyone and anyplace he could find. That goes for churches, schools, businesses and organizations around the busy intersections west of downtown Bradenton. One time he dropped off 400 smoothies at a car dealership.
The yearlong effort cost nearly $300,000. But the Cotrones believe it was worth it. Says David Cotrone: “That's how we got people to know us.”
Lots of people know the Cotrones' Smoothie King stores these days. The couple bought a second store in 2008, also in west Bradenton. That store, on Manatee Avenue West, was No. 2 in sales last year among 21 Tampa-area stores, says a Smoothie King spokeswoman. Covington, La.-based Smoothie King has nearly 600 stores worldwide.
David Cotrone says the couple's two stores combined for more than $1 million in sales in 2011. He expects that figure to grow at least 20% in 2012. The couple's first store, on 53rd Avenue West, near IMG Academies, is up nearly 40% in the first half of the year over the first half of 2011. The couple's son, David Cotrone Jr., runs that location.
Natives of Long Island, N.Y., the Cotrones moved to Florida in 2000. Their two young sons played tennis at IMG. David Cotrone had been in insurance and sales in New York.
Still, going into the smoothie business at the onset of the recession was an uncharacteristic gamble for the Cotrones. It cost $250,000 to open the first store, and another $350,000 to open the second store. The money was from personal savings and loans.
“There were a lot of times I thought 'what the heck am I doing?'” says Cotrone. “The first thing people stop getting (in a recession) is a smoothie.”
Plus, the Cotrones opened the Manatee Avenue store in October 2008 — the heart of the global financial meltdown. The location, in a standalone store on the edge of the Saint Stephen's Episcopal School campus, hadn't had many successes. It had previously been a chicken store, a coffee shop and a Schlotzsky's Deli, among other brands. Says Cotrone: “Everything that was there had failed.”
To avoid that fate, the Cotrones invested heavily in the build-out of the 2,600-square-foot store, which was built in 1965. They redid the plumbing and the air conditioning. They also extended the ceilings and pushed back some walls. The Cotrones lease the building from Saint Stephen's.
David Cotrone says the couple is now considering an expansion of their Smoothie King empire. They might look for a third store that's closer to the beaches. They will also look into east Manatee County, in a mall project Benderson Development is behind.
Until then, Cotrone says he and his wife want to focus on continuous improvement at their two existing stores. “The biggest challenge we face is to keep everything clean around the machines and the buildings,” Cotrone says. “We are kind of OCD about everything.”