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Mike Quillen's quest for constant improvement continues

“One of the things that drives my success is, every day you wake up there’s a different problem, and you just hope you can solve those problems.” –Mike Quillen, Gecko’s Hospitality Group


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  • | 5:00 a.m. May 9, 2024
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Mike Quillen co-founded Gecko’s Grill & Pub in 1992.
Mike Quillen co-founded Gecko’s Grill & Pub in 1992.
Photo by Mark Wemple
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Mike Quillen has been at the helm of Gecko’s Hospitality Group with business partner Mike Gowan since they founded the company together in 1992. Gecko’s Hospitality Group encompasses a total of 10 establishments from Bradenton to Venice: Six Gecko’s Grill & Pub locations, Dry Dock Waterfront Grill, Tripletail Seafood & Spirits, Dockside Waterfront Grill and the Red Barn Bar.

Four years ago he independently started Watershed Hospitality Concepts, which includes Sarasota restaurants Cask & Ale, The Blase´Cafe´ & Martini Bar + Pi 3.14 Pizza, Pie on Main and Lefty's Oyster & Seafood which will be opening later this summer. He operates Watershed Hospitality with a few partners. 

Not limited to the confines of the Gulf Coast, he recently started Cashiers Restaurant Holdings, which owns Micas Mountain Kitchen and Pub in Sapphire, North Carolina. (Quillen and his family have a home in Cashiers, a popular seasonal spot in southeast North Carolina for many Sarasota-Bradenton residents.) 

Quillen moved to Sarasota with his family when he was 12 years old. He bounced around the state as a young adult in the hospitality industry until, inspired by one of his dad’s bars, Quillen and Gowan started their first restaurant — with a mere five employees. “We were two of the five [employees] and then that lasted about a day or two. And then we saw the need for more employees and basically worked every day and night for five years before we did anything else. And then we started to expand,” Quillen says.


Size 

Quillen’s hospitality brands employ some 800 employees based on the demands of the season. He declines to disclose revenue figures for the companies or brands. 

But he does talk about inflation and the havoc it has caused on margins, price increases and more. During the pandemic, he says “the inflation was off the charts and the availability of all of our products was off the chain.” (A typical small business restaurant runs on a 3-5% pre-tax margin according to the National Restaurant Association, with labor costs and increasing food costs being the most significant line items.)

Quillen notes that while inflation has gone up and down over the last few seasons and is creeping up again, increased labor costs remain the biggest barrier to sustained growth in the restaurant and hospitality industry.


Challenges

In the early days of Gecko’s Hospitality Group as a single restaurant, Quillen asked himself, “How much money do you want to make? How successful do you want to be?” He realized the answer was in creating scale. 

In his quest to scale the business to include more restaurants, he says labor has always been the biggest challenge. Currently, “a huge part of this is the workforce housing,” Quillen says. As the Sarasota-Bradenton area has grown over the years and the cost of living has increased, workers across all pay grades are pushed out of the area. 

Quillen has been working with executives and leadership in groups like the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and Argus Foundation to brainstorm potential solutions to keep people living nearby. He notes there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the housing problem.

“But we've got to be able to take care of the folks who work for us and provide a good place for them and their families to live.”


Mistakes and lessons learned 

“We started a health food concept in Sarasota back in the early ‘90s. Everybody said they wanted to eat healthy but they were all lying,” Quillen quips. 

Gecko’s Grill & Pub has six locations in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Photo by Mark Wemple

Another concept that didn’t pan out was Smacks Burgers and Shakes, which opened in 2013 across the street from Brookside Middle School in Sarasota — where Quillen once attended. There were challenges converting an old garage to a restaurant and issues with a lack of parking. Ultimately the restaurant closed in 2020, with the pandemic being the end. “So I think thinking with my heart, a little bit more nostalgic with ‘oh, I went to school right across the street’ wasn't the best idea.”


Tipping point

“I'm waiting for that moment,” Quillen says thoughtfully. “Now, we’re still here, but you want to improve everything you have all the time. Things like the pandemic come along and COVID. I think probably one of the things that drives my success is, every day you wake up there's a different problem, and you just hope you can solve those problems. That's after 32 years in business.”

It’s a “constant quest to try to make yourself better and get more organized.” In addition to his involvement in various industry and local organizations, Quillen is a self-described voracious reader, going through 4-5 books at any given time, ranging from memoirs and biographies to American war history. 

He is also a big believer in surrounding yourself with the right people, whether seeking advice from those wiser than him in the early days or hiring the perfect fit for the company. 


Best advice 

“Show up and be as involved as you can in your community,” Quillen says. Getting involved with chambers of commerce and economic development organizations and knowing your elected officials are methods he recommends. 

He believes in everyone working together to solve each other’s problems, not just trying to get things to go your way. “Have a good dialogue with them and see what you can do to help them and it generally flows both ways.” 

This story was updated to reflect the correct names of Micas Mountain Kitchen and Lefty's Oyster and Seafood.

 

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