Ybor City restaurants fail to market

The Citytimes article Ybor’s fresh approach yesterday stirred some previous thoughts I’ve discussed individually with people but have never fully vetted in a written forum.

The above article announces the opening of Raw Sushi and Sake Lounge in Ybor City; in the same location as the two previous failed sushi restaurants, Sushi on 7th and Sushi Xtreme.
Raw Sushi co-owner Bob Volini talks positively about bringing an adult crowd to the district and says “I think it’s time to come back.”

The same article notes that Big City Tavern in Centro Ybor has now closed, whose owner, Brian Cornacchia, stated “my clientele just doesn’t want to come to Ybor.”

How is that for a contrast in attitude?

Having not personally met him, where does Volini get the optimism when so many business owners have failed?

Based on what I have seen over the last seven years it is blind optimism or a sign of true entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately for most of the failed Ybor City restaurateurs it seems to be the former.

Taverna Opa

Taverna Opa opened in mid summer 2006 with a mayoral ribbon cutting and news coverage well before it opened. A year of renovation and construction went into the opening, yet less then a year later they closed.

I ate twice at Taverna Opa when it first opened, once by invitation for the grand opening and again to stop in for drinks and appetizers. The food and service were great and the environment was awesome.

While I love the Acropolis Greek Taverna a block away I think there was room for both in Ybor. The roominess and open air dining room of Opa lent itself to larger groups; there was even a section of the menu specifically to encourage that.

So what took out this mini chain from South Florida?

Outside of some mentions of staffing issues which comes with the territory and is amplified when business is slow, marketing is probably the biggest reason.

After the initial visits I was never once reminded they were there, directly (they had my mailing address) or indirectly (through advertising).
With the quality of food, service and group seating there is no way that they should have struggled through the travel, holiday and parade seasons in Ybor City.

Sushi Xtreme

Sushi Xtreme opened in early 2006 with owner Khue Dinh determined to make a name for himself and his unique take on Sushi dining.

Creative Loafing’s profile of Sushi Xtreme notes that Dinh’s house was on the line to make this venture work yet the inexperienced restaurateur proudly explained that he did absolutely no advertising for the restaurant.

Sometime in mid to late 2006 Dinh closed the restaurant due to lack of business.

I had been there on a few occasions, invited by a friend of Dinh’s and even booked a dinner party there for our Ad 2 Tampa Bay board leadership retreat. The service and food were at most passable which might have accelerated the closure.

Romeo’s Studio 1515

Longtime supporters of Ybor City, Walter and Sara Romeo opened Studio 1515 in late 2003 with the hopes of drawing artists and an older, more affluent crowd to Ybor City for coffee, conversation, art and music.

Not a year later a St Pete Times article noted Sara Romeo positively urging fellow Ybor City merchants to wait for the results of a visioning study (to make further changes in the district) when the city was discussing changes to weekend street closings.

As owners of the building the Romeo’s lasted longer then others when they finally decided to close the doors in late 2005.

According to the St Pete Times article on the closing, Walter Romeo sited “a lack of daytime business in Ybor City” as the reason.

While I acknowledge Romeo’s upbeat attitude and claim that “if things start looking like there will be a need for a business there, we definitely would want to come back,” I have to disagree that lack of foot traffic was the problem.

I regularly meet with clients, associates and friends in Ybor City during the day and typically choose to frequent local independent businesses. I met with people a few times at Studio 1515 and unfortunately never once had a great experience.

Simply going to the counter to order coffee gave me the feeling I was interrupting the staff rather then giving them an opportunity to make me feel welcome and want to come back.

If the standoffish atmosphere coupled with a lack of encouragement to come back was typical to daytime visitors, the lack of foot traffic cannot be blamed.

Three Different Businesses

Susan Thurston’s column, Requiem for an arty hub about the closing of Romeo’s ironically notes the opening of Sushi Xtreme and Taverna Opa.

The three businesses vary greatly; from a successful and experienced restaurateur offering great food, service and atmosphere to a passionate sushi chef with dreams of changing the way we eat sushi to a couple looking to bring more culture to the district.

You don’t have to look further then the corner of 7th Avenue and 17th Street to see where all of the above businesses went wrong by not marketing.

Bernini of Ybor

Since 1996 Bernini of Ybor has “seen foot traffic gradually increase during the day” said owner Jason Fernandez in 2004 who also noted that the garages solved the parking problem and beefed up police presence helped as well.

If you’ve been to Bernini you know the place encompasses all the things the above failed businesses had in part or tried to attain.

The restaurant regularly hosts private parties and events, attracts affluent diners, provides a unique Ybor experience and breaks the mold from typical cuisine.

Why the stark difference in results?

He’s doing well thanks to aggressive marketing at area hotels and businesses.
Rather than scale back operations like many have done, he expanded, creating a
private dining room for group parties and offering gift certificates and

Aggressive Marketing

The only common difference between numerous failed Ybor restaurants and Bernini’s success is Jason’s focus on continually reminding people of his business through marketing.

Provided Raw Sushi has the quality and service diners want, Bernini is a great example of how Bob Volini can be successful in Ybor City.

One comment

  1. Tampa I Am says:

    I have to agree with you regarding your latest blog. IM hoping “Raw” does the right thing..in this transition of Ybor for the umpteenth time, it is so important to have Service, Quality, and an aggressive marketing plan if your business is to survive.

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