BRADENTON -- Three downtown eateries shuttered their businesses suddenly this month, just as the city is working to attract more restaurants downtown.
The Riverwalk at Rossi Park and the transformation of the Pink Palace into a Hampton Inn has been touted as a major draw to restaurants and other downtown businesses. But as the season began its wind down three downtown restaurants -- Retro City Cafe, Lucky Dog and Jennifer's Cafe -- permanently closed their doors in quick succession.
"Anytime a restaurant closes in downtown it makes us in the DDA sit up and take notice," said David Gustafson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. "We want to keep them open."
Still, Gustafson said, those closings toward the end of
season, won't deter other restaurants from moving downtown.
Gustafson said he has been courting restaurateurs from Chicago, Miami and New York.
"The restaurateurs that we're talking to, they've got their numbers, they've done their analysis. They know what the Riverwalk is adding, they know what the hotel will bring," Gustafson said. "They are very well-financed with an incredible track record and have been doing this for well over 20 years."
While Gustafson said he is "very optimistic and very excited about the future" for the restaurants he is working to bring downtown, he is concerned about those that have closed.
"I believe absolutely that we have to find replacements for those other restaurants," Gustafson said.
Romuald Marasinski and Rebecca Picasso, who relocated to Bradenton from Albany, N.Y., opened Retro City toward the end of 2011 in the Suntrust Bank Building, which has been a sort of revolving space for restaurants.
Lucky Dog's loyal customers were surprised when the restaurant closed Wednesday after three years in business.
Jennifer's Cafe in the Bradenton Financial Center also had loyal customers after three years in business. But its location limited the amount of traffic the restaurant received.
"In the restaurant business, just like real estate, a big part is location, location, location," Gustafson said. "Then there's ease of access and quality of food, advertising, word-of-mouth, consistency of product."
Word-of-mouth can bring in customers or it can hurt a business that has had even one bad day, he said.
"It's an exhausting, exhausting job and you have to really, really work hard and take care of the customer," Gustafson said. "It's a tough, tough business. Every day you have to prove it to yourself and to your customers."
Gustafson said the DDA recognizes how hard it is to survive, especially during the downturn in the economy.
During the past few years as people cut back on discretionary spending, casual dining was one of the first places to take a hit. Fast food restaurants saw a bigger segment of restaurant spending as customers looked for ways to save money. Restaurant trends show diners are beginning to come back to casual restaurants, even so, it has been a bumpy comeback as dining-out spending stalled in February, but then returned in March.
"People are choosy with their dollars," Gustafson said. "They don't want to take a risk if they don't feel they are getting an appropriate return on their dollar."
In order to keep restaurants working downtown, Gustafson said, "we want to strategize with them. We meet them, we talk to them to see what they need. A lot of restaurants in downtown are doing extremely well."
He said for restaurants that struggle during Bradenton's season, it makes sense to close before all the snowbirds head home.
"If you can't make it in season, the summer months are even more difficult," he said.
Toni Whitt, business editor, can be reached at 941-745-7087. Follow her on Twitter @toniTwhitt.