In the beginning, there was an “old broken-down driving range.”
But its location at 4735 Bee Ridge Road looked promising enough for the father-and-son team of Steve and Mike Evanoff to buy the 16.3-acre property, fix up the driving range with new grass and greens and start adding a host of new businesses: a full detail car wash, miniature golf, ice cream parlor and a sports bar.
Call it Evie’s Empire, one of the region’s most unusual business ventures. With about a dozen “profit centers,” the company employs about 150 people. Most of them work at the Bee Ridge complex; the rest are at the Evie’s Tavern sports bars in downtown Sarasota, Ellenton and Palm-Aire.
Running a driving range was not in either man’s experience. The Evanoff family, which has deep Irish roots, comes from Windham, N.H., a town about 35 miles north of Boston. Steve Evanoff owned and operated The Systems Group (TSG), a temporary help company that specialized in providing information technology workers. TSG was based outside Boston and had 12 offices throughout the country. “I did that for 23 years,” Evanoff says. He sold that company in 2000.
Mike Evanoff, the third of four children, graduated from North Adams State College in western Massachusetts in 1996 with two bachelor’s degrees, one in marketing and another in management. He played ice hockey in college and had an offer to play in Canada after he graduated. “I was in training and broke my ankle for the third time and had to give it up,” he says. “I moved to Atlanta and worked in sales.”
Mike was 25 years old when his father first talked to him about buying the driving range in 1997 and running it as partners. “We had always wanted to do something together,” Mike says, “and this looked like a good opportunity.”
Steve Evanoff thought the driving range was a good investment (property appraiser records list the sale at $2.3 million). “It was a nice piece of land in a great location,” he says. But he never would have bought the place “if I didn’t have a young son” who could manage it as a partner and co-owner. Other people saw the potential in the property, too, he says, “but they didn’t have the nerve or the money.”
And while Evanoff says he had the fortitude to take the leap, he still had sleepless nights thinking about the investment in an unfamiliar business. “What did I know about the bar business?” he asks. But enthusiasm for the vision pushed him beyond the worry.
“You just have to have passion for what you do,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any magic in running a business. I was in the service business, and this is a service business. Developing relationships is our forte. Just treat the customer like a customer. They put money in your pocket, and you can never lose sight of that. People will say, ‘the Evanoffs—they treat people right,’ and I think that’s what we try to do.”
When customers arrive at Evie’s today, they find a complex of buildings and activities. Evie’s Driving Range, with 60 stations to hit from, is in the back of the property. In the front, along Bee Ridge Road, visitors have a range of options: Evie’s Miniature Golf Center, Evie’s Pizzeria & Ice Cream Parlor, Evie’s Tavern & Sports Bar and Evie’s Car Wash. The building is large enough to accommodate golf clinics, including a free junior clinic held every Saturday at 9 a.m.
The men say they had a very “flexible” business model for what they have done. “We had to take our time, get the permits,” Steve Evanoff says. “We wanted to do it right and not just throw up something. But it’s not rocket science to know that a driving range and a bar go together. I know myself as a golfer that I like to go to a sports bar after golf. They seem to go together. What does a person want to do on Sunday? Hit some balls, get the car washed, have a slice of pizza—you can do all that and more with one-stop shopping at Evie’s,” he says.
They also wanted to make it a family place, so they created a “family zone” outside the ice cream parlor with a sandbox for children and rules for behavior. Steve Evanoff’s oldest son is mentally handicapped and in a wheelchair, and the experience of raising a special needs son has made the Evanoffs welcoming of special needs individuals and groups.
“There’s no smoking and no swearing in the family zone,” says Steve Evanoff, 68, who comes across as a smart, commonsense businessman. “If you want to smoke or swear, you have to go behind the bar.”
Mike Evanoff, a broad-shouldered, six-foot, three-inch, 38-year-old who still plays ice hockey on weekends at the Ellenton Ice Rink with his Evie’s Tavern-sponsored team, says the many facets of the business evolved. “One thing led to the next,” he says.
Tragically, the Evanoffs’ car wash made the news in February 2004 when police were investigating the disappearance of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, who had spent the night with friends and then vanished on her way home. Police dogs tracked her scent to Evie’s Car Wash, where the trail ended. A security camera at the back of the building showed Carlie walking across the car wash property when a man appeared and led her away. That recording led to the arrest and conviction of Joseph P. Smith for the murder of the young girl.
“We were all just stunned,” Mike Evanoff told reporters at the time. “It was chilling.” Evanoff says today that “Everybody in the community thanked us for having the cameras. It was a very unfortunate situation.”
In 2005, Mike Evanoff married Tess Thompson, who had a profit center of her own. She had been running her own business, Spa Hollywood at 5780 Swift Road, since 1990. At first a “tiny start-up,” her business is now a 4,000-square-foot operation with 50 employees. Although Mike and Tess operate separately, they make a point of doing cross-marketing.
When the two Evanoff men had developed all of their property on Bee Ridge Road, they began to open sports bars at other locations. “We have Evie’s Tavern at U.S. 301 and Ringling in Sarasota, Evie’s Tavern in Ellenton, and we just opened Evie’s Tavern and Grill at Whitfield and University in Palm-Aire,” Mike Evanoff says.
Do they plan more expansions? “Now it’s time to take a breath and get better control of all our locations,” Mike Evanoff says. “Then we will look and see what else is out there that we might want to do.”
The Evanoffs don’t know of any other business quite like theirs in the region. But they won’t comment on their annual revenue. “We don’t want to share that stuff,” says Mike Evanoff. The company has survived the troubled national and local economy by watching labor costs and other expenses and cutting back where possible. “We are not back to our pre-2008 level,” Mike says, “but we are slowly climbing back up to where we were before.”
Steve Evanoff says the business is doing better than he expected. What has made it possible for Evie’s to maintain and even expand during hard economic times is the company’s effort to “give people a good product, stay in tune with our local customers and have a place for tourists to come.”
Mike Evanoff is the day-to-day, hands-on partner, and his father is the back-end support. “My dad works behind the scenes, making sure things are running smoothly,” Mike says. “We have a weekly meeting to discuss all the businesses and profit centers. We use an organizational chart to manage the business. We break down points and staffing and who reports to whom, who is in charge of what. We try to stay in front of the curve, see what’s changing, how to market and how to promote. We have staff to help with that. And we try to have a manager at every profit center.”
Steve Evanoff describes his relationship with his son and business partner this way: “I gave him life. I am his father,” he says. “We make a good team. He has a lot of space to work in, and hopefully he looks on me as a mentor and for advice. We have our battles like any other partnership, but it’s give-and-take on both sides.”
The Evanoffs do agree on their objective: They want Evie’s to be a family place with “the best ice cream scoops, the best pizza, the place to go for Sunday football, the place to have your car washed.” But no smoking or swearing in the family zone.
Evie’s Moving Parts
Evie’s Driving Range Includes 60 stations, a putting green, chipping green and sand bunker. Full golf lessons available from various golf professionals. Custom golf club fitting services. Video golf swing analysis available.
Evie’s Miniature Golf Center, an 18-hole par 40 waterfall adventure course. Handicapped accessible.
Evie’s Pizzeria and Ice Cream Parlor. In addition to serving individuals, Evie’s offers a range of party packages for birthdays and fund-raising events. The arcade adjacent to the ice cream parlor has a pool table, two Air Hockey tables and 15 games.
Evie’s Tavern & Sports Bar, with a view of the driving range and a menu of appetizers and sandwiches, large-screen TVs, even a large-screen TV in the floor.
Evie’s 1223 Parking, a parking valet service for nightclubs, restaurants and taverns.
Evie’s Car Wash
Includes six different wash services. Custom detailing services available. The car wash can handle boats, RVs, trucks and motorcycles in addition to cars.
At other locations:
Evie’s Tavern on Ringling in downtown Sarasota, 1989 Ringling at U.S. 301.
Evie’s Tavern Ellenton at 5955 Factory Shops Blvd., Ellenton.
Evie’s Tavern & Grill in Palm-Aire at Whitfield and University.