Westchase said goodbye to another local favorite. Chico's Wood Fired Grill permanently closed its doors on Monday, March 28, after serving the community for five and a half years.
Patch spoke to former owner and chef Andy Masters, whose resume includes well-known establishments such as Houston’s, The Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s.
The sole proprietor of Chico’s, who purchased the business in September 2008, filled us in on the decline of his eatery, which marketing strategies worked, and suggestions on how residents can support the community’s small businesses:
Patch: When did you start feeling the financial "squeeze"? Was the change (in sales) gradual or dramatic?
Masters: The sales decrease was gradual. The numbers declined in October 2010 (as they typically do from September until January), but they never returned in January 2011 as expected. I knew some people who had lost their jobs and my catering revenue was severely affected.
Patch: You featured some great weekly specials, a loyalty program, etc. Which promotional tactics worked, which didn't?
Masters: The Loyalty Card was successful; guests were diligent about using their card and redeeming their rewards. Overall, Taco Tuesday was good sales-wise, but if we had stayed open, we would have had to increase the price. There is very little profit on a two dollar item.
We also discounted through Groupon and TBO Daily Deal. Both drove traffic through the door but these types of promotions are not good for your bottom line. The idea is genius, so hats off to those who developed the concept.
Patch: Do you think your location hurt or helped you?
Masters: When I purchased the location I thought it was better than it turned out to be. I would rate the location as a "C" and the fact that it was an in-line store front and not an end-cap can usually impact you negatively.
I can't help but wonder how we may have done in a more dense area such as South Tampa. Westchase has only X number of people and when additional restaurants open, everyone’s market share goes down. My staff and I question how Publix shoppers know all the other businesses in the plaza?
Patch: Obviously, the choice to close down had to have been difficult for you. How long did it take you to make that final decision?
Masters: Once we realized in January that sales were not going to bounce back in strong fashion as they had in previous years, we knew we were going to have a tough time. It is just a tough economic environment out there right now.
Patch: What was your strongest day/night of the week?
Masters: Tuesday nights and Fridays typically. But the sales on those two days decreased so much over time that the loss of traffic proved harmful.
Patch: Was there a particular area (or crowd, or demographic) in which you were struggling? (i.e. the lunchtime, Happy Hour, families, after-work crowd, etc.)
Masters: Lunches absolutely seemed to disappear. In the middle of the year we released a lunch menu featuring smaller portions and lower price-points to drive more traffic long-term. I knew in the short run that we would take a small hit, but the lunch crowds just seemed to diminish.
I realize that times are tough and if you want to save money, bringing your own saves a significant amount. We always tried to execute our best at lunch and serve our guests quickly so they could get back to work.
Suggestions were made that we extend Happy Hour until 7pm (instead of 6pm), but I don't think that people realize that Happy Hour was – and is – designed to get people in the door in that slow 3-5pm time frame. Many restaurants now host 2-for-1 deals but from what I have seen, the glassware is smaller and the deal is not as good as most people think. But then again, it’s good marketing.
Patch: You mentioned (in a previous email) that there is a perception that restaurant are doing well. Who do you think has this mindset?
People in general have commented to me how Westchase restaurants are "killin it" (meaning, making great money). When I ask how they came to that conclusion some response is, "I can just tell".
Margins in the restaurant business are very slim. Now consider the high rents and it can be really tough, if not impossible. Don’t forget to toss in increased fuel and food prices and you can see the future outlook is not so bright for independent operators. I would really hope that the rents eventually come down to a more reasonable level in this area, especially since they way above the going market right now.
Patch: What are your future plans? Are they related to the dining/hospitality industry?
Masters: My only plan now is to do what is best for my family. We will have to see where that leads. I love the business, but this recent experience has left a bad taste in my mouth from an ownership standpoint.
Patch: What advice do you have for restaurant and/or small business owners?
Masters: Do your best and fight for every penny. I know it’s tough when you have to compete with the chain restaurants or big box retail stores. One thing that irritates me is all this "help small business" talk. My personal opinion is that there is very little help and you are indeed, very much on your own. And, if the business is having a tough time, forget about getting any reasonable financial help. Local residents in every city and state need to make a conscious effort to support the smaller businesses in their areas or these small entities will continue to disappear.
Patch: What would you like to tell the community of Westchase/your customers?
Masters: We loved our regulars and the clientele in this area is great. I encourage them to do their best to support the local restaurants. If you go out to eat just one more day/night per week, you’d be helping more that you would ever know. Coax your friends into coming over to Westchase; show them what Westchase has to offer. One of my all-time favorite restaurants is in this area and it starts with Z and ends with N!
I also want to give props to my fantastic staff. They were always upbeat, reliable and hard-working. It was tough seeing them have to go. We always had a good time at work and loved serving the residents of Westchase. We tried to offer the best, freshest food possible. I believe we created some truly great dishes. Are there things we could have done differently? Sure, but any business owner will tell you that. Hindsight is 20/20.