The two Mikes, as Mike Quillen and Mike Gowan are known, have been friends since they were 12 years old and playing tennis together at the Bath & Racquet Club. After finishing at the University of Florida, Gowan went to work as a bartender at Marina Jack. Quillen graduated from New College and joined Steak and Ale’s corporate side. But in 1992, the two Mikes made the decision to open their own restaurant. They patterned it after Monkey’s Uncle Tavern, the Jacksonville restaurant that Quillen’s father operates. Today Quillen, 52, and Gowan, 53, are partners in five Gecko’s Grill & Pub restaurants and three bars in the Sarasota area. They employ 300 people and estimate annual revenues at more than $13 million “in a good year.”
How did you finance your first restaurant?
Gowan: We begged and borrowed. We were just poor waiters back then. Mike Quillen’s family helped us.
Quillen: It took $150,000 to $160,000 to build our first place in 1992. It cost $1.2 million to build our latest Gecko’s at Clark Road and Honore Avenue.
Who does what?
Gowan: I make sure the operations are running well as far as service. He is the creative one.
Quillen: I am pretty much better at everything.
Quillen: Opening a health food restaurant, Wild Eats, in Sarasota in the late 1990s. It was pretty cutting edge but it didn’t generate enough sales. Everybody says they want to eat healthy but they were lying—and they damn sure didn’t want to pay for it.
Toughest part of the job?
Quillen: Letting a longtime employee go [related to] the prescription drug problem. You have someone work for you for 15 years and they do a good job, raise a family. Suddenly, because of a car accident or something, they aren’t performing, and you don’t know why until it looks like they got into painkillers and prescription drugs. We’ve lost many good people to that.
Gowan: Keeping and finding good employees, and making sure we do the right thing legally so we don’t get sued. As we get larger, we have to watch out for sexual harassment and employment issues like texting.
Favorite business book?
Quillen: Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. You take the traditional hierarchy, with the bosses at the top, and flip it so it puts us at the bottom where we support the employees on top of us. This promotes cooperation and creativity. Something magical happens with servant leadership.
Gowan:We are redoing our menu, so I’m looking at Restaurant News and Food & Wine.