Restaurants regaining appetite for expansion

Bree Waters, left, of the Village of Alden Bungalows, chats with David Smith, general manager of the new Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q, during opening day at the Magnolia Plaza location.

Villagers are getting some tasty new choices with restaurateurs feeling confident to open new dining options as economic conditions begin to slowly improve during the pandemic. It’s just one example of The Villages’ resilience even in difficult times, said Scott Renick, The Villages director of commercial development. “The restaurant segment of the economy was hit hard by COVID-19,” he said. “On a national level, it’s been struggling mightily. But it’s a testament to the strength of The Villages market that we have so many restaurant operators still bullish about our community.” The latest example is Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q, which introduced a Southern-style barbecue menu Wednesday during its opening at Magnolia Plaza.

Later this month, Farmshed American Diner will introduce its Southern-style breakfast, lunch and dinner menu at Spanish Springs.

Only a couple of months ago, Prima Italian Steakhouse opened to popular acclaim with its Italian-and-steak menu at Brownwood.

In about six months or so, they’ll be joined by the Harvest restaurant at Brownwood, which will feature a fresh-and-healthy menu in partnership with The Villages Grown.

New Momentum

These new restaurant ventures add a new chapter to The Villages’ ability to withstand market interruptions.

Even the demographers at the University of Florida found The Villages one of the most interesting market studies in wake of the Great Recession.

“Years ago, we would not have predicted the amount of growth or the sustained growth during the Great Recession,” said Rich Doty, GIS coordinator and research demographer at UF’s Bureau of Economic & Business Research.

In the wake of the pandemic, The Villages restaurant industry is regaining its footing, according to sales reports submitted to the Florida Department of Revenue.

Restaurant sales grew by 19% from the trough of the pandemic in May 2020 through December 2020 in Sumter County, the data showed.

What inspires Renick is how restaurants in The Villages reacted to the rapid decline in sales during the government-ordered lockdown in May 2020 and the climb back to normalcy.

“We only lost three restaurants, one due to a corporate bankruptcy and another because its lease expired,” Renick said. “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our residents, because they support our local businesses. They’re not the sole reason, but they’re a huge reason for carrying and sustaining them in tough times; as well as good times, leading them to expand.”

Fresh and Healthy

Expansion is old hat for Fred Karimipour, president and CEO of FMK Restaurant Group, which owns and operates Belle Glade, Bonifay, Evans Prairie and Orange Blossom Hills country clubs; Bluefin Grill & Bar and Scooples Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant at Brownwood; and the Chop House at Lake Sumter Landing.

Karimipour and his management team anticipate a fall opening of the Harvest restaurant right across the street from Bluefin Grill & Bar.

“I’m thrilled to be doing this project,” he said. “We’re taking something we’ve seen from all the menus we’ve seen in our lives and putting a new twist to it.”

Harvest will feature a fresh and healthy menu through a vendor partnership with The Villages Grown, Karimipour said.

“We believe The Villages Grown has a product in taste and quality like I’ve never seen before,” he said.

Guests also will be able to savor this healthy, tasty menu with a significant wine selection, said Philip Benjamin, FMK’s marketing director.

“Harvest means season of gathering,” Benjamin said. “We want to bring people together with good food, new food and wine. It’ll be modern cuisine, but a little different than what’s in The Villages now.”

The new restaurant also describes Karimipour’s success in The Villages as he follows the community’s growth.

“I look at what’s happening in The Villages, and the need here, and the anticipation of continued growth here,” he said. “More than anything else, it’s just fun to do business in The Villages. And Harvest is going to meet the need.”

Optimism Grows

Even amid the pandemic, David Suleiman made the decision to expand his footprint as a restaurateur in The Villages.

The owner of the Legacy and Havana country club restaurants in The Villages opened Prima Italian Steakhouse in February with the acquisition of Ricciardi’s Italian Table at Brownwood.

It was a good decision, too, Suleiman said.

“Prima is doing better than we expected,” he said.

The decision to acquire a third restaurant builds upon Suleiman’s optimism for even more growth opportunity in The Villages.

“We’re very optimistic about The Villages comeback,” he said. “So far, it’s panning out to be true. Things are coming back to life.”

The short-term outlook for each of Suleiman’s restaurants also appears bright.

“It seems like the summer months already are going to be as busy as we were in 2019 before the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve been talking a lot to our guests, and they’re telling us they want to get out and enjoy The Villages. They want to get out to experience what they missed during the pandemic.”

Guests also appear much more confident about The Villages as the number of vaccinated people grows, Suleiman said.

“Everybody knows that a lot of our seniors got vaccinated,” he said. “So they’re feeling safe about getting out into The Villages rather than going someplace else. And many of them now seem to be making the change to stay year-round in The Villages.”

Going Southern-Style

Confidence in the market also explains the decision by Carlo and Nicole Bellusci, of the Village of Buttonwood, to open Farmshed American Diner at Spanish Springs.

“People in The Villages love life, love their family, love their neighbor, love their country,” Carlo Bellusci said. “They want to get out and break bread with their friends and family. That’s why we’re opening up.”

When the restaurant opens later this month, the couple is requesting guests to make reservations at least for a while through their website, farmsheddiner.com, Carlo Bellusci said.

“Farmshed is a new concept that’s never been done here before,” he said. “It’s a place of celebration. It’s a place where people can enjoy all-day breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. We call ourselves a ‘finer diner,’ a place and a space where people can gather and get high-quality food.”

The Farmshed menu will feature burgers, steaks and Southern-style food like shrimp and grits, collard greens with bacon; and, “of course, some fatback,” Bellusci said.

“We’re also going to have the best Southern-fried chicken with house-made Alabama sauce,” he said.

All of that comes with a touch of class, Bellusci said. The menu will include fine wines and spirits.

“We’ve got about 25 really good wines,” he said. “We’re not a bar. We’re a ‘finer diner.’ We’ve got beautiful wines, extensive cocktails and a highball bar. We’ve brought a lifestyle. The resilience and the strength of the United States is illustrated by the people who live in and around The Villages. It’s time for us. This is why we put in a premium wine and alcohol menu. We’re going to serve them great food and great wine and drinks at a fair price.”

Too Good to Pass

Growth opportunities also fueled the decision by retired veterans Mark and Liane Hinch, of the Village of DeLuna, to open Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q at Magnolia Plaza.

Mark served as a Navy SEAL and retired as a commander, with Liane serving in the Army Nurse Corps and retiring as a captain.

They’re excited about the restaurant they’re opening in partnership with their daughter and son-in-law, Jessica and David Smith, and Mark’s brother, John Hinch.

“It’s great-tasting barbecue,” Mark Hinch said.

The couple was exploring new venture opportunities, when a consultant suggested Willie Jewell’s and The Villages, he said.

“We jumped on it with both feet,” Hinch said. “We ran with the ball that day, working with The Villages for a contract with this location. It’s been great, too. We’re very excited about opening here. Not only are we business owners, but we’re also part of The Villages community. You put the two together, and it seemed like a perfect situation for us.”

Even before the restaurant opened Wednesday, Hinch knew he and the family hit upon a really good restaurant concept.

“Dozens of people a day, if not more, are knocking on the door or looking through the windows,” he said. “It’s Villagers driving up in their golf carts looking for another dining avenue.”

The response to the opening over the past several days only heightens Hinch’s optimism.

“We go the town centers and eat at other restaurants,” he said. “They’re slammed and packed even on a weekday. That’s odd typically in the restaurant business. You see that typically during the peak season. You don’t see that on a weekday, but you do here. So, I’m highly optimistic.”

Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.