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Comfort food

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 11:00 a.m. September 2, 2016
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Executive Summary
Company. Anna Maria Oyster Bar Industry. Hospitality, restaurants Key. Owner John Horne battles over-regulation in the hospitality industry.

Manatee County restaurateur John Horne learned a key business lesson back in the early 1980s at a summer job in a Polk County phosphate mine.

“When you're selling your labor,” his supervisor told him, “sell it to the highest bidder.”

The line resonated with Horne, then a teenager. It still does more than 35 years later, both for the role it played in starting his restaurant career and the role it plays today in his No. 1 business priority: to keep a well-compensated and happy workforce at his four-location restaurant chain, Anna Maria Oyster Bar.

“We do our best to treat our employees the way we want them to treat our guests,” the affable Horne says. “We ask them to be nice to our guests, so we should be nice to them.”

The be-kind approach, in an industry known for high turnover, comes in many forms. One example is HotSchedules, a new Smartphone app that allows employees to create, communicate and manage schedule and shift changes. It gives employees a tech-age perk: the ability to switch shifts with colleagues, quickly and digitally, when life things happen.
Says Horne: “It's made things so much easier for people.”

Be-nice also includes an annual field trip for employees who have been at the company at least three years. The trips, which usually cost Horne around $8,000, have included Bucs games with a steak and lobster tailgate tent; a daytrip to Disney World; a Tampa Rays game in the owner's suite; and an overnight jaunt to Biloxi, Miss. This year's trip, with 98 employees out of 253 who make the cut, is scheduled for Adventure Island in Tampa. “It's just a way of saying thanks,” Horne says.

The approach pays off. Horne says annual revenues at Anna Maria Oyster Bar have risen 6% to 8% in each of the last few years. Locations include Ellenton in north Manatee County; Cortez Road in west Bradenton; south Manatee County near the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport; and the newest location, Anna Maria Oyster Bar on the Pier on Bridge Street in Bradenton Beach, which opened late last year.

Trudy Moon, who co-owns Bradenton-based Air & Energy, a home services contracting firm, says Horne, a longtime friend, is one of the most loyal employers she knows. Moon, who introduced Horne to his now-wife, Amanda Horne, says John Horne can be a “wild and crazy, life-of-the-party” kind of guy. But don't be fooled, she adds, not even by the Elvis Presley imitations Horne has on his outgoing cell phone message.

“He comes off as a funny guy, and he is,” says Moon. “But he doesn't miss anything in business. He's as shrewd as they come.”

Take a hike
One thing Horne hasn't missed — and the No. 1 worry that keeps him up at night — is the amount of regulations the industry faces.

“Everyone thinks their industry is the one that's regulated the most,” he says. “But in restaurants there are so many things coming down, and then every time you turnaround, there's more.”

The list includes minimum wage hikes, overtime rules and changes in health care coverage policies. A potential rise in minimum wage is something Horne is especially passionate about.

And like some other small business owners in the minimum wage debate, Horne says he's not against giving employees more money. A competitive wage, he contends, helps him get and retain top people. He adds that he's generous on raises — even without being required to by the government. A kitchen or dishwasher employee who starts at $10 an hour, for example, can earn a 50-cent-an-hour bump for every new skill or department he or she learns.

The problem, says Horne, is if the federal government sets a $15 minimum wage, his costs, and many others, will explode. He created a note card that tracks what his costs will be. At $15 an hour, it's not only a hike of $6.95 an hour from the current Florida minimum of $8.05 an hour, Horne says. It also means the minimum wage for tipped employees would rise $6.95 an hour, from the current $5.03 in Florida to $11.98.

The tipped salary increase is the killer, Horne says. His proof: In 2015, at the $5.03 hourly rate, Anna Maria Oyster Bar paid $1,155,369 to servers who clocked in 229,696 hours. At $11.98 an hour, it would be an annual payroll cost of $2,751,758. That's an extra $1,596,000 Horne has to make up to break even.

Full circle
Like some others who rose up in the ranks in the restaurant industry, Horne started out busing tables. First at a country club in Bartow, and later, when he quit his job at the Polk phosphate mine to move to Anna Maria, where he bused tables at Fast Eddie's.

Horne worked for Fast Eddie's founder Eddie Porter for a decade, doing a little bit of everything. “You work the front, you work the back,” he says. “I got to know every part of the business.”

A standout experience: Horne ran every aspect of a new Fast Eddie's location in Tarpon Springs, from construction to grand opening to operations. The idea was to have a grand 1950s-style restaurant and catering hall. It was a whopping 26,000 square feet and sat 1,100 people. There were three floors, a lounge and 320 employees. “It was too big. We were successful because we didn't know any better,” Horne quips.

Horne says the 90-hour workweeks finally got to him after 10 years. He opened the first Anna Maria Oyster Bar, on Anna Maria Island, in 1996, working with some of Porter's brothers, who had overseen construction for Fast Eddie's locations. He opened another AMOB in 1997, and closed the Anna Maria location in 1999. The Cortez location opened in 2002 and the Ellenton one in 2003.

The Bridge Street Pier location, says Horne, wasn't part of his expansion plans. But Horne seized an opportunity to lease space on the pier when the Bradenton Beach City Commission put it out for bid last year. It was a full-circle move to come back to near where he started, says Horne. It also validates the recent revitalization efforts on Bridge Street.
“There is a great business mentality out there now,” Horne says.

At all the locations, the theme remains the same: quality food, great service and a relaxed everyone-knows-your-name vibe. On food, one key lesson Horne has learned in the last two decades is in sourcing vendors, always keep an open mind about switching things up, both for quality and to increase margins. “There's more than one way you can get something,” he says. “You have to look everywhere.”

On maintaining high quality service, Horne says the integral component he has incorporated into AMOB is to put his best people up front. The hostesses and hosts go by the title of
“Director of First Impressions.” That first customer contact, says Horne, is make-or-break. “Whether she's answering the phone or is the first person you see,” he says, “She will make the experience good or bad.”

Moon shot
One of Anna Maria Oyster Bar owner John Horne's passions, outside of the restaurant, is to help people who entered the workforce right out of high school go back to college.

That's why Horne and his wife, Amanda Horne, teamed up with Stewart and Trudy Moon, owners of Bradenton-based Air & Energy, to create the Horne & Moon Scholarship Fund. The Moons, with a firm that has two Manatee County locations and handles air conditioning, plumbing and electrical work, see the same need in the contracting sector to help non-traditional college students.

“When you are coming out of high school, scholarships are available,” Horne says. “This is to help people who need to change jobs and change careers.”

The fund, through the Manatee Community Foundation, provides need-based scholarships for adult students at Manatee Technical College, State College of Florida and USF Sarasota-Manatee. The fund has raised $170,000 in the last two years, says Horne, mostly through a fundraising social event held in the fall. The upcoming Horne & Moon Social is scheduled for Oct. 22. Email [email protected] or call 941-725-1235 for more information or for tickets.


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