by David Hall
Photography by Salvatore Brancifort
Anna Maria Oyster Bar’s John Horne is building an empire one loyal employee at a time.
“We do our best to treat our people very well.”
It's close to noon and a rare break in the day for John Horne as he scans the interior of his office, located next to the Anna Maria Oyster Bar in the Cortez Village shopping plaza in Bradenton. As the 19-year owner of the popular seafood chain, which has three locations in Manatee County and one more on the way, Horne has amassed plenty of keepsakes.
He focuses on one memento hanging on his wall: a large illustration showing his employees playing golf, on the beach, skydiving and otherwise having fun during the many employee appreciation trips Horne has organized over the years. It was a gift from his staff on the restaurant’s 10th anniversary in 2007. Horne is struck by how many employees in the picture were with him from the very beginning, and how many are still with him today.
Of his 232 employees, 105 (more than 45 percent) have worked there more than three years. Of those 98, the average time with the company is more than eight years. Although Horne doesn’t record employee turnover rates for his restaurants, they are likely far below the national industry average of 66 percent, meaning only 34 percent of restaurant employees remain in their positions after a year, as reported by the National Restaurant Association.
“We’ve been fortunate to work with some great people,” Horne, 54, says. “Even though I’m a negative bastard, we do our best to treat our people very well. It’s one thing I’m very proud of and it really has been the key to our success.”
Despite sometimes harping on every little detail, or being a “negative bastard” as Horne puts it, his management style of empowering his employees and demanding their best has paid huge dividends. Horne has built a loyal staff, and they’ve helped create a loyal customer base.
Revenue was more than $11 million last year and is expected to increase 8 percent in 2015, Horne says. That doesn’t include revenue from a fourth Oyster Bar on the Bradenton Beach Pier slated to open later this year.
Horne might be building a restaurant empire in Manatee County, but the roots of his entrepreneurial success trace back to the rural farming town of Bartow, Fla. Horne’s father owned a citrus grove and his mother ran her own court reporting business, a rarity for a woman in Polk County in the 1970s. The dinner table was filled with talk of business dealings, staff issues, payroll and accounting.
“We sat around the dinner table and me, my brother and my parents would talk about our day,” Horne says. “My mom would talk about an issue she had with her staff, and my dad would say, ‘This is what I would do if they worked for me.’ That’s how I started seeing how businesses transpired.”
[caption id="attachment_9654" align="alignnone" width="488"]
[Matt Andrus with customers at Anna Maria Oyster Bar.][/caption]
Horne’s parents owned a vacation home on Anna Maria Island. While attending Clemson University in South Carolina, Horne worked every spring, winter and summer break at Fast Eddie’s Place restaurant on the island. He loved the work but was struggling at school. After several semesters of rotating between majors and earning a tepid 1.7 GPA, Horne decided to make the restaurant business his career. He switched to an administrative management major and decided he should probably start attending classes.
Revenue was more than $11 million last year and is expected to increase 8 percent in 2015.
“There was a direct correlation between attendance and GPA, I found,” Horne says with a smile. “But changing my major gave a practical application to everything. Every class I took after I changed my major, after I had a direction, I felt like I was learning something as opposed to taking tests.”
After graduation Horne started working at Fast Eddie’s full time, eventually moving up to manager. Horne left Fast Eddie’s a year before it folded in 1992, and the restaurant’s former landowners asked him to manage another one of their restaurants, which was located on Anna Maria Island’s City Pier. The Anchorage Oyster Bar lasted from 1993 until 1996, after which Horne revamped the menu and relaunched the restaurant as Anna Maria Oyster Bar.
The restaurant was a hit, blending a family-friendly and casual atmosphere with fresh, well-prepared seafood at modest prices. Less than a year later, in 1997, Horne opened his second location at the former site of Nick Bollettieri’s Sports Grill on Tamiami Trail, a few miles north of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. While he wasn’t looking to expand, Horne says the location made the decision easy.
“It was a deal too good to pass up, and it has proven to be a great opportunity for us,” Horne says. “The start-up costs were really affordable. It was almost just change the sign out front and open up tomorrow.”
Horne’s lease ended on the City Pier in 1999, though he found a new Bradenton location on Cortez Road in 2002. A year later he opened his third restaurant in Ellenton, after first dismissing the city as a viable location. “This realtor said, ‘Have you been out to Ellenton lately?’ I said I hadn’t, and he said, ‘Well, then, shut up and get in my car.’ He told me what an idiot I was and he was 100 percent right. It’s been a great location for us,” Horne recalls.
During the recession, Horne eliminated waste and other expenses, while not cutting staff or raising prices.
Now Anna Maria Oyster Bar is the second listing on Google when typing in the words “Anna Maria.” The restaurant has earned Horne many accolades, including the 2015 Small Business of the Year (51-100 employees) from The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. The award was for Anna Maria Oyster Bar’s location on Tamiami Trail.
Christine Miller, assistant to the chamber president and organizer for the awards, says the judges were impressed with Horne’s commitment to his staff.
“John has created a positive work environment for staff so that they are loyal and have stayed for years as a result, very unusual in the restaurant field,” Miller says. “He showed infectious enthusiasm for his business and pride in his employees.”
The road wasn’t always smooth. Horne says he learned a tough lesson in 2006 when he found himself coasting a bit and not anticipating a major drop in profit due to “not keeping my eye on the ball.” He eliminated waste and other expenses, while not cutting staff or raising prices, and turned the business around by 2008. A second lesson learned was to constantly improve the menu and keep up with food trends. “It’s the sizzle that sells,” he says. Today that means more locally caught fish and small plates along with traditional offerings.
Steve Harner, owner of The Crow’s Nest Restaurant and Marina in Venice and president of the Sarasota-Manatee Originals restaurant group, says Horne has created what is essentially a model business in the local restaurant industry.
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[Anna María Oyster Bar restaurant on U.S. 41 in Bradenton.][/caption]
“The biggest challenge locally is the seasonality of the business and keeping a full restaurant and full staff during the summer,” Harner says.
Horne is quick to volunteer that he’s not perfect. “I kid that I’m the most negative manager there is because I point out what’s wrong,” Horne says. “Maybe I don’t point out what’s right enough and give enough ‘attaboys.’ I think that’s the biggest management flaw I have.”
Still, that “flaw” is valued by many employees. Longtime bartenders Woody Coddington and Cherise Sherwin say employees who buy into Horne’s philosophy tend to excel and stay employed.
“I find John just wanting to run a successful restaurant, but if he has to step on some toes, he will,” Coddington says. “People who’ve been doing this for a while, real professionals, they welcome that. If you are going to be a crybaby, you don’t want to work at the Oyster Bar.”
Sherwin says Horne is a great motivator, offering gift certificates and other bonuses for on-the-job accomplishments. Horne rewards employees with at least three years at the restaurants with an annual trip to a sporting event. He has also embraced new technology, allowing employees to change schedules and request days off through a smartphone app.
Anna Maria Oyster Bar is the second listing on Google when typing "Anna Maria."
“He is always willing to work with you if there’s an issue or a problem,” Sherwin says. “[Three years ago] somebody was trying to quit because the schedule wasn’t working, but John saw that and talked to her. He completely turned it around and made her feel wanted and she stayed and is still with us.”
Horne maintains a presence in at least one of his restaurants every day, talking to staff as well as customers. He also supports charities through his restaurants with events like Relay for Life, blood drives, charity auctions and other events. (He is a finalist in Biz(941)’s Greater Good Awards this year, see page 32.) Personally, Horne has volunteered for educational groups like the Pace Center for Girls Manatee and established his own charity event, the Horne & Moon Social, which raises scholarships for students looking to attend trade school or needing more education in their careers.
But despite all the spinning plates, he commits to being home every night to share a bottle of wine with his wife, Amanda.
“When I first started, a normal week was 90-plus hours. That’s what you do to start a business,” he says. “But you have to have perspective that a lot of things are important. For me, that’s the community and my home life.”
FROM THE BOSS
Horne’s recipe for success.
IT’S MORE THAN SKILL AND PREPARATION. I have spoken with classes at local culinary programs, and one class had researched all they needed to open a restaurant. But they forgot one thing—cojones. It takes stones to get into the food service business. You have to be willing to dare, to take risks, to go out on a limb and then have the intestinal fortitude to make it work.
YOUR SALARY COMES LAST. I’ve seen too many owners take salaries of $60,000-$100,000 the first year and then there’s not enough money to run the business. The owner should be the last person being paid, and when you’re successful you’ll be the highest one paid.
SPEND MONEY TO MAKE MONEY. It truly is the sizzle that sells. When your place is exciting and vibrant, people will enjoy dining there. You can tell when you open the door if the staff likes where they work. If they’re having a good time, the guests will have a good time.
EXPANSION IS A GUT INSTINCT. When I walked away from the Anna Maria City Pier in 1999 my heart wanted to pay what they were asking, but my head knew it was time to walk away. We are approached with expansion opportunities several times a year, and this is where your gut has to tell you if it’s a good deal or bad deal.
HAVE A GUIDING PRINCIPLE. In two of our restaurants we painted on the walls a quote incorrectly attributed to Jimmy Buffett. I can’t find the original, so I [still] give Buffett credit: “Be yourself. Be pleasant. Play hard. Have no regrets.” It’s something we strive to do daily.