PALMETTO -- They joined forces. They parted ways. Now, they’re competing against each other with restaurants less than a half mile from each other.
Jake Cablish and Jeff Lyons are examples of why somebody created that old adage warning against doing business with friends.
For the past two years, Cablish and Lyons -- buddies since about 2004 -- co-owned The Nook at 423 10th Ave. W., building a successful restaurant at a location that has hosted beloved eateries for decades.
But things fell apart in December when Lyons informed Cablish he was no longer welcome on the Nook’s property. Less than two months later, Lyons had been kicked out of the old Nook location and opened a bigger version of The Nook at 337 Eighth Ave. W., another building known by longtime Palmetto residents for hosting restaurants.
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And Cablish had opened a new restaurant, Norma Rae’s, at the old 10th Avenue location.
Both business owners profess to be looking forward and trying to move on from the turbulence of the past.
“Bad things happen for good reasons sometimes,” says Lyons, who is excited about having his own parking lot and the opportunity to obtain a liquor license. “We’re doing 100 percent better here, and Palmetto has great people who really support their local businesses. I really feel that this is the place we need to be.”
“I’m not upset about what happened,” says Cablish, whose employee force includes his wife, Amy, and sister-in-law, Shari, “and the main reason why is because Norma Rae’s is named after my late mother. I’m more proud of this restaurant because it’s carrying on her name in a positive way.”
Yet, the split between the two remains a topic of intrigue, confusion and suspicion -- depending on who you’re talking to -- among customers and fellow business owners. And both Cablish and Lyons are still coping with fallout from the breakup.
Cablish still has people showing up at his restaurant thinking it’s The Nook. He’s also searching for a way to let the Palmetto community know that some of their favorite Nook waitresses are now at Norma Rae’s. Those favorites include Lauren Moore, who has earned a widespread reputation as the “bubbly” one.
Lyons is trying to spread word to former customers who may not yet know that The Nook they once loved on 10th Avenue still exists, but just around the corner on Eight Avenue.
Each eatery has its loyal and avid supporters. Many of Lyons’ customers come from his seven-year history of owning versions of The Nook throughout the region: his first location was at 34th Street and Cortez Road and his second was on Main Street in downtown Sarasota. Both preceded his Palmetto spots.
“I love this house and think it’s just gorgeous,” says customer Emma Bertrand-Dorics of the new Nook. “It’s so charming, and it’s got better parking.”
“I like the atmosphere, and we’ve come to know the regular waitresses that are still here,” says Patty Atkinson about Norma Rae’s. She and her husband, Chris, have been eating regularly at the 10th Avenue location since its former identity as the Old Main St. Cafe.
For every employee that professes loyalty to Cablish, there’s another professing equal loyalty to Lyons. Both are praised as great bosses who care about their workers.
There’s just one area where Lyons is clearly at a disadvantage, and that’s reputation among the owners of businesses along 10th Avenue. Several say Cablish’s abrupt firing from the old Nook messed with the family-like feeling among the street’s business owners, and they make a point not to eat at the new Nook.
“To me, it’s just about loyalty and convenience,” says Carrie Holcomb, owner of the nearby Infinity Salon. “Jeff worked mostly in his Sarasota location, and so we only got to know the people that were here (in the Palmetto location) most of the time.“
Lyons is aware of the 10th Avenue business owners’ allegiance to Cablish and the old 10th Avenue location but chooses not to address it. But public records and his attorney offer clues about why Lyons chose to end his relationship with Cablish.
Records on file at the Florida Division of Corporations show that Cablish incorporated a separate business at the 10th Avenue location, without Lyons’ knowledge, in early December while he was still Lyons’ business partner. The name of the business: Norma Rae’s Nook.
While Cablish says he established the separate company to handle catering that would bring revenue to the existing Nook, Lyons’ attorney sees it another way.
“Cablish was trying to hijack the business,” said attorney David Montgomery. “He had made great inroads, almost to the point of ultimate success, and Jeff swooped down at the last possible second to prevent it.”
Montgomery said his client has ample additional evidence of “a systematic plan to hijack the business” while Lyons was absorbed in putting out fires at the Sarasota location. Cablish denies the accusations, says he wasn’t being “malicious” when he formed a separate company at the same location and used the Nook name, and describes Montgomery’s conclusions as “a matter of opinion.”
To those who are just looking for a good meal and pleasant atmosphere, like Palmetto resident Beth Thornton, the end result is a net win. Thornton praises the quaintness of the old Nook/new Norma Rae’s, and loves the peacefulness of the new Nook.
“I’m just glad we have two good restaurants to choose from.”