Village restaurants hope vision plan sees more Bradenton-based customers

cschelle@bradenton.comApril 28, 2013 

VILLAGE OF THE ARTS -- As tourist season winds down, restaurants are relying more on their local clientèle. But chefs in the Village of the Arts don't see enough Bradenton residents walk through their doors.

They hope to figure out how to bring people from downtown to the artists' colony when they meet Monday with the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and Realize Bradenton for a "Plan to Act" meeting.

Businesses expect an action plan to provide transportation connectivity and urban design standards, among other opportunities for Village of the Arts. A team from University of South Florida School of Architecture led by Assistant Professor of Architecture and Urbanism Shannon Bassett has worked on the project, and Dr. David Brain, professor of sociology at New College of Florida, will address the next steps.

Restaurants have been having mixed results and

are looking for help.

Ortygia Chef/owner Guy Cattana is in the fortunate position of maintaining clientèle. He has built a good reputation over his seven years in business, even though his restaurant is off the beaten path on the southside of the village.

"If I had this place on a strip mall on 41, or on 26th Street where 50,000 cars pass by a day, I wouldn't be here," Cattana said. "I think that the fact that the Village is exciting and this restaurant is in this little house and it's a secret, and people want to find it makes it exciting."

As he walks outside to talk to a visitor, a man in a Ford truck stops to ask when he opens.

"You wanna eat? We're open," Cattana tells the man, who then parks and walks in for lunch with a friend.

Cattana said his sales have doubled since last year, but he knows more needs to be done for the good of the Village and hopes something tangible comes out of Monday's plan. He hopes the city shows a financial commitment as well as a promise that more public officials will shop and dine at the artists' colony instead of talking about what they want to do for the neighborhood.

"I hope the city actually does something, because they've done nothing," Cattana said. "They've done absolutely nothing for me."

Most restaurants in the Village close for at least a month, during August or September, because the foot traffic isn't there during the oppressive humidity and peak tropical storm season. Cattana will lead a tour in Sicily this year to get away from work, while other restaurant owners say they're visiting family or retooling their business during their off time.

Having more Bradenton residents come through the door could change that for a few owners.

At Charisma Cafe, 1004 10th Ave. West, owner and chef Kim Hoffman admits she struggles with her business and is finding ways to retool operations by putting on special events once a month and having a booth at the Downtown Bradenton Farmers Market twice a month. What would really help, she says, is a commitment from downtown businesses and government office workers to buying lunch once a week at a Village restaurant plus bringing people by trolley or bus to the quirky neighborhood.

"What do I need to do to get your business from downtown?" Hoffman asked. Hoffman is committed to being inventive at her own business by running to the curb to deliver call-ahead orders so people don't have to leave their air-conditioned car, but she knows it's going to take more than that to cut it.

Public transportation stops at the Village edge, but a trial-run trolley during the De Soto Seafood Festival had restaurant owners raving about the first-time Bradenton customers enjoying the food and service. The free April 6 trolley was paid for by the DDA, Realize Bradenton and Manatee County Area Transit as a first step to study public transportation needs.

Hoffman hopes that Monday's plan for the Village will also address sprucing up sidewalks on 10th Avenue West and a fix for stormwater runoff problems that flood her parking lot and outdoor cafe.

The fixes will be too late for owner and chef Tara Sell of Sweets Bakehouse as she transitions her business away from retail and lunch service to focus on custom cakes and catering out of her home. She plans to take the summer off as she steps away from her shop at 930 12th St. West and into her own kitchen.

"If the trolley isn't viable for the county, then a designated walking path with way-finding signs is needed to bring people from downtown," Sell said. Sell figured that about 95 percent of the people she spoke to who rode the trolley into the village during the Seafood Festival were first-time customers, with many of them living in Bradenton. It's people like that who will make a business sustain beyond loyal customers driving from Stuart once a month to take home a pie, she added.

"Locals don't seem to patron the village," she said.

At Arts & Eats Restaurant and Gallery, 1114 12th St. West, Donna Slawsky proclaims that she's doing remarkably well. Slawsky and chef Jim Copening relocated to Bradenton after selling an apartment in New York's Greenwich Village and were able to use funds from that as capital for the restaurant in addition to securing a low-interest loan from a credit union. Slawsky said Arts & Eats is in the black so far.

"We have been able to pay all our bills. We're in the black. We're not in the red after seven months," Slawsky said. "I think after five months we were able to pay our bills out of our revenue."

Slawsky cultivates her online presence helping to bring the restaurant to a No. 1 ranking for Bradenton restaurants on TripAdvisor, blogs about her business and reaches out to customers she hasn't seen in a while to help bring them back for a meal.

While other restaurants want folks from downtown to stop by, Slawsky is interested in how the visioning process can help bring her Village neighbors into the fold.

"There are a lot of people who are living here who have no relation to the Village of the Arts," she said. "How can we work together for safety? How do we get more people to come over here because there is a perception that it's not a safe neighborhood or people can't find us."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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