In a one-two-three punch to Sarasota’s Southside Village, Annabelle's Home & Kitchen store in April packed up its silver salad tongs and crystal wine glasses and, a few weeks later, across the street, the Tasting Room served its last martini. Then Fred’s Restaurant next door dished up its last braised beef short ribs before closing for what was described as a six-month remodeling period.
When the doors clicked shut, the trendy South Osprey Avenue shopping and dining district turned into a ghost town overnight, merchants say.
“You could park a 40-foot truck out there,” says Fred’s next-door neighbor, Tim Dowling, executive director of Abbott Atelier Galleries, as he pointed at vacant street parking in front of Morton’s on a late weekday morning. “You used to not be able to find a spot. My foot traffic is down by about 95 percent.”
Owned by Bill and Carla Griffin under the Epicurean Life umbrella, all the businesses (which, in addition to Annabelle’s, Fred’s and the Tasting Room, include Morton’s Gourmet Market, Morton’s Catering and Special Events, J.D. Ford and Gift Baskets) and the real estate, located at Osprey and Hillview avenues, are for sale for $31.1 million. (Epicurean Life’s Lakewood Ranch businesses are for sale, too.)
The Griffin family has been mum about the sell-off since it was announced in October 2006. “The official statement to the media still stands,” says Michael Saunders & Company broker Lee DeLieto, who is marketing the property. “The current ownership has taken it to the level they can. Now it’s an opportunity for someone else to take it to the next level.”
Epicurean Life executives didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. There’s been some shuffling going on at the corporate office, however. Randy Salser, Epicurean Life’s CEO and the Griffin’s son-in-law, is no longer with the company. “He’s doing his own thing,” says Eddie Morton, vice president of operations for Morton’s.
With the whole Griffin enterprise up for sale and thousands of square feet of commercial space now vacant at Southside Village, uncertainty about the village’s future hangs in the air as thick as summer humidity. Fewer businesses mean fewer reasons for customers to visit.
“Every day you hear a new rumor,” says Dowling, who moved his longtime St. Armands art gallery next to Fred’s in December. “This restaurant is coming in or that one. No one really knows.”
Next door to Abbott’s, Sally’s of Sarasota clothing and accessory store is seeing fewer clients. “We used to get a lot of people who said, ‘I’m coming out of Fred’s, coming out of Annabelle’s,’” says manager Cindy Higham. “One of the reasons we moved over here was because of these viable businesses.”
“We certainly plan to stick it out because there will be a wonderful new restaurant opening in October,” says Sally Hawthorne, owner of Sally’s.
Along with Morton’s and its gourmet deli items and baked goods, the Griffin-owned Southside Village businesses “gave it a life,” says Carol Sirard, owner of Sirard’s Chocolate House at 1821 Hillview.
“It’s just sad,” says Sirard, who was a bartender at Fred’s when it opened in 1999. “Everyone in the neighborhood misses Fred’s and the people sitting out there. It was a neighborhood spot. Now it’s this big empty spot.”
Sirard and other Hillview businesses say the closings haven’t cut down on their business quite as much as those businesses on Osprey Avenue. Still, the closures and the uncertainty of how long the property will be vacant weigh on them.
“We’re disappointed that there are empty spaces, though it hasn’t affected our business,” says Kim Livengood, owner of Willow 506, a clothing boutique catering to 20- and 30-somethings. “Their lunch crowd wasn’t our clientele but they were definitely an anchor of the street.”
One thing is for sure, Dowling says, Saturdays aren’t the same. Fred’s was one of the few upscale area restaurants open for lunch on Saturdays, and that brought crowds.
“For many ladies, it was part of their thing,” Dowling says. “They’d go to Fred’s, go to Morton’s, come here and go next door to buy a dress at Sally’s. We had foot traffic and everything rather high end.”
With Fred’s and the other businesses closed, many business owners now worry about Morton’s viability. But Morton, who owned the store from 1969 until selling it to the Griffins in 1997, insists that “Morton’s is going to be there whether someone buys it or not. The Griffins have said they’ll keep it open.”
Morton’s son, Todd, now manages the Southside Village store, and his father says there’s a possibility the grocery store and deli may once again be in the family fold since Epicurean Life is selling its properties individually or together.
“I’m entertaining it,” says Eddie Morton. “I’ve been approached by people who want me to stay and I’d love to.”
Putting rumors to rest and assuring his employees have become a regular part of Morton’s job as he shuttles between the two Morton’s, he says. He points to construction work going on at the Tasting Room as evidence that the Griffin’s haven’t bailed on Southside Village. “We’re doing some remodeling and some cosmetic work,” on the buildings, Eddie Morton says. Two new tenants, Riley Interior Design and Marmelade Salon, will open in the reconfigured Tasting Room space Oct. 1. “It’s all positive,” Morton says.
He also says Fred’s will reopen in November.
As for the rest of the Epicurean Life properties, DeLieto says they’ve “had lots of offers, but none have been acceptable.”
The two Fred’s restaurants are for sale for $9 million and the Southside Village building housing Fred’s is an additional $5 million. Whoever buys the Southside Fred’s real estate has to take the restaurant, according to DeLieto’s Web listing. “We’ve talked to investors who don’t want to run a restaurant and operators who don’t want to own a building,” says DeLieto. “We’re trying to marry the two.”
Much as he’d like to sell all the Epicurean properties in one transaction, DeLieto says it’s more likely they’ll sell separately.
Getting retailers into the empty space is of primary concern to businesses in Southside Village. But it’s not going to be easy in today’s retail climate, says Sue Ault, owner of Ault Realty Advisers, Inc.
“It’s a nice little location but we’ve got a lot going on in retail,” she says.
Ault says two years ago there was no vacant space and now demand for retail space is off by about 30 percent in Southwest Florida and continues to slow. Coupled with that, new retail projects such as Sarasota Bayside, Pineapple Square, University Town Center and the expansion at Westfield Southgate are making it more challenging to market a neighborhood center.
“All I can say from an activity level is how much longer it’s taking to finalize leases,” Ault says.
Simmering in the mix of merchants’ concerns is the city’s plan to replace a stoplight at Hillview and Osprey with a roundabout next summer, something that will either be the death knell of business (and a few pedestrians, quips Dowling) or create a leisurely pace that will encourage people to pull over and shop and dine.
“That’s the other goofball thing,” says Higham, who’s not too keen about the idea.
The Southside Village Association, the neighborhood group of about 20 businesses, supports the roundabout and, a few months ago, organized a neighborhood “stroll” and other activities. “We’re doing a lot to bring in customers,” says Sirard, who is the group’s co-president.
Commercial real estate professionals who have sold and managed property in the area say merchants have little to fear in the long run.
“There are a lot of long-term stable businesses there,” says John Harshman, owner of Harshman and Co., who recently lease optioned a building at 1900 Hillview to John Thompson, who is planning the Big Sugar and Rum Bar. “There are several reasons: the (nearby Sarasota Memorial) hospital and the residential in the vicinity and the traffic on Siesta Key.”
Ault agrees. “It’s a stable location,” she says. “The good news is that Florida is still one of the top projected growth states and Sarasota is one of the top cities.”
Southside Village is in the midst of several highly desirable Sarasota neighborhoods, including Harbor Acres and Cherokee Park, where houses range from the $300s into the millions.
“We have a lot of dedicated customers regardless of what’s going on around us,” says Higham. “It’s a neighborhood. We stand on our own just like Palm Avenue and St. Armands. I just wish there were more retail, more reasons to come.”
Harshman takes the long view: “These kind of transitions turn out for the best. The neighborhood district will survive. It’s a very stabilized, small entertainment district and it’s got the demographics.”
WHAT’S FOR SALE
Epicurean Life businesses and Southside Village property: $31.1 million.
Morton's Plaza at Southside Village with property, $8.1 million.
Morton’s (business only): $3 million
Morton’s at Lakewood Ranch business only: $6 million
Two Fred's restaurants (at Southside and Lakewood Ranch), excluding Southside Village property: $9 million
Fred's Plaza at Southside Village, property, $5 million (can only be purchased in conjunction with the restaurant)
SOURCE: Michael Saunders & Company