No one, not even Kearns Restaurant Group, anticipated the success and customer acceptance in the first few weeks of the opening of Ford's Boathouse Tiki Bar & Grill at the Cape Coral Yacht Club.
As intended, it is a totally different concept to KC's Riverstop, which the Boathouse replaced as the food, beverage and marine fuel dock provider for visitors to the city's lone beach, fishing pier and multi-use park facility.
"We've been quite busy since we opened," said Boathouse general manager Mickey Sperry. "We are so much more than the Riverstop was, which was basically a concession stand with a deck and a few plastic tables with umbrellas. We added 2,200 square feet of deck, a top-notch sound system and seating capacity for 200 guests. There are 40 items on our menu and a nice selection of beers and cocktails. A lot of people enjoy what we've done. It's really a spectacular place. It's become a gathering place. We're still growing into it."
It took six months and about a half-million dollars of renovations to a city property to transform the place into the only waterfront restaurant destination in Cape Coral on a beach.
"We signed two 10-year leases with the city and we maintain the property throughout those years," said Sperry. "Business has been beyond all expectations. We have been so busy we haven't had time to put together any promotions or plan themed parties yet."
The business opens at 8 a.m. to serve a light continental breakfast followed by regular menu lunches and dinner entrees and licensed as a full liquor bar.
"We want to expand to a full breakfast menu sometime soon," said Sperry. "We close by 10 p.m., that's in our contract. We agreed to that to be a good neighbor to the residences around. Our live music stops by 9 p.m. and we have taken steps to shield and direct the sound away from the homes. So far we have had no noise complaints."
Sperry called the location convenient for Cape Coral residents because they don't have to deal with the heavy traffic like on Sanibel or cross any bridges to get there.
"Business has been phenomenal so far," said Kearns VP and co-founder Zak Kearns. "It's been a labor of love. We have a profit sharing deal with the city, so the better we do the more the city gets."
Part of the transformation included hauling in 66 tons of fresh, clean sand at considerable expense to build the Boathouse beach. The triangular sandy area between the restaurant and the pier was trashy and nasty with cigarette butts all over the place.
"We cleaned that up and made it nice," said Sperry. "We haven't 'stolen' that beach. It's part of our footprint in the agreement with the city. Any customer can purchase something and sit out on that beach to enjoy it. We are a liquor establishment, it's against the law to bring your own alcohol to that spot, thats why we restrict its use to customers of our bar."
Sperry said staff basically opened the boat dock and started pumping fuel, but the group is planning a transformation for that area, too.
"It will only get better from here," he said. "Fuel sales are going very well. We want to expand that to open a ship's store to sell beer, ice, sunscreen and other marine and beach items, but it's a slow process."
Establishing itself as a welcome asset hasn't been completely rosey, however. The first three weeks in revamp drew much criticism from a wide variety of beach and other park facility users because of the new valet parking service near the restaurant.
"Some people say we are trying to make money off of public parking. That's just not true," said Sperry. "We were using 38 close parking spaces and parking as many as 80 cars in that same space with the valet service. We're trying to see if we can improve the parking."
A general lack of parking has been a problem at the park for many years. The city and the restaurant knew that at the beginning. That was at least part of the reason for trying valet parking on a trial basis.
Earlier this week the city announced that it is relocating the valet parking area to the smaller overflow lot on the west side of Driftwood Parkway in response to the voluminous feedback the city received from park users.
"Valet parking was always just a trial to see if it was a solution to the parking problems," said city spokesperson Connie Barron. "Parking has always been limited at the Yacht Club and we knew it would be exacerbated by the Boathouse opening. The feedback we've received made it clear that an alternate location had to be found."
The Boathouse hired the valet service to handle the parking and offered it as a convenience to all beach and park users. The valet service charges $3 per car on weekdays and $5 on weekends from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
"Frankly, that's cheaper than what people pay at other beaches for valet parking," said Sperry. "Using the distant lots the valet fee could be double. I talk to all of our guests and they all like what weve done. It's not unreasonable to charge a small fee for parking. There are fees at other public parks, too, like to take classes, rent pavilions or ballroom space for group gatherings."
"I'm open to how to make it better, to improve parking and make it work," Kearns said before the lot relocation. "I'm open to suggestions. I think it is a positive amenity for the Yacht Club. We've created more parking spaces. We want to be good neighbors and don't want the uproar."