Mathew Baum has owned and operated restaurants in Florida for about a dozen years. He’s learned a lot over that time, and when he decided to open up a spot in his native Fort Myers, he wanted to give people an experience.
“You have so many different options to be able to eat at home, whether it’s meal prep [services] or third-party delivery or grocery stores that have hot meals ready to go,” he says. “So I don’t think it’s okay anymore to just say, ‘Oh, our food’s great so come here.’”
The food is of course an important part of the concept at Backyard Social, which Baum and business partner John Mann opened in October in the bustling Alico Road area just east of Interstate 75 in Fort Myers. Eight food trucks are stationed at the open-air site, offering everything from mac and cheese to arepas.
But there’s a lot more on the menu at the “eatertainment” venue, like four lanes of duckpin bowling, electronic dart lanes and the ever-popular corn hole. A large bar sits at the center of the site, and highly Instagrammable seating nooks and vibrant murals by artist Ruben Ubiera can be found throughout the uber-stylish space designed by Manhas Design.
It took almost three years and an investment of more than $5 million to bring Backyard Social to life. Baum and Mann chose the property because of its proximity to housing developments like WildBlue, a growing number of office and commercial sites and the Southwest Florida International Airport. “Not to mention Florida Gulf Coast University, which for us is like icing on the cake,” says Baum, 39. “It was never the crux of our business plan, but it’s something that’s welcomed in the later hours for sure.”
Baum’s also a fan of “what some might call second-tier cities,” he says. “You know, Fort Myers, Sarasota, some of these areas that are highly dense and have a great population of people that want fun places and cool things to do and sometimes get overlooked by some of the cooler, one-off type of spots.” In fact, a second Backyard Social is in the works for the Lakewood Ranch area near Sarasota. Baum estimates that’s about 18 months away
Baum and Mann established a business model where they control the bar and the food trucks pay a flat rent for a spot at Backyard Social. “So the owner of the food truck is here, seven days a week to some capacity, looking out for that individual business,” says Baum.
The response from customers so far has been strong, which helps with the ever-present challenge in the restaurant business of staffing. “It’s way easier to hire, attract talent and retain talent when you’re busy,” he says.
Years of running Wolverine Management restaurant group, which also includes several Florida locations of The Brass Tap plus other restaurants on the east coast of Florida, have taught Baum about what it takes to keep employees happy and doing their jobs well. Although the restaurant group is relatively small, it offers full benefits to employees that include health care, paid sick days and an investment matching program after a year of employment.
“We want to be more than just a pitstop,” says Baum. “If you want to make it a career, we want to make sure that we give you that option and to make sure it’s a career that’s long-lasting. … And we want people to be able to have a life outside of here and then come into work excited and motivated.”
Another challenge? “Obviously it’s a first-time concept for us,” says Baum. “So we’re learning new things.” They’ve already had to add bar space, dumpsters, storage space for dry goods and an ice machine since opening. And they know that having an open-air establishment that gets lots of foot traffic will mean regular maintenance issues.
“But we’re happy to address those items,” says Baum. “And then you just try to figure out if there are better ways to rebuild something so that it lasts a little longer the next time around. But those are fun challenges.”
Sustaining momentum at Backyard Social will take some work. “That’s actually the thing that always keeps me up,” says Baum. “I get excited when a store opens and it does good sales, obviously. But I don’t ever get really overly excited because it’s a significant investment and an investment for longevity. It has to be something that lasts for years.”
He’s not afraid to make needed changes — and make them quickly. “We try to see where the guest needs and wants are and adapt to it instead of being stubborn,” he says.
In addition to the planned Lakewood Ranch location, Baum sees the possibility for more Backyard Socials in other spots. He’ll be opening new locations for another Wolverine Management brand, Agave Bandido, in Greenville, South Carolina and the Atlanta area and knows that capitalizing on opportunities for economies of scale would be a smart move.
“It would make sense to look and see is there an area here that would make sense for Backyard Social,” says Baum. “Obviously we picked that area because we liked it. So if we liked it for that, it might make sense for something else.”
Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, FamilyVacationist.com and SmarterTravel.com. Learn more about her at BethLuberecki.com.