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Cafe on the Beach management change prompts local concern

HOLMES BEACH — The popular Cafe on the Beach is scheduled to change hands this summer — and a lot of people aren’t happy about it.

Dee and Gene Schaffer have had the contract to operate the restaurant and a gift shop at the Manatee County Beach since 1992. About seven years ago they subleased the cafe to Tom Vayias and John Menihtas.

The four have built a loyal customer base in those years. But with the management contract set to expire in July, the owner of the building — Manatee County — recently advertised for proposals.

Vayias and Menihtas, under the name Cafe on the Beach LLC, vied for the contract, but lost out to Alan Kahana, who along with Mark and Debra Enoch owns United Parks Services.

The Tampa-based company plans to refurbish the building in a Key West-style and offer several entertainment activities, including bicycle, motor scooter and kayak rentals.

A loyal following

Winter residents Carole and Jim Beebe, of Clarkston, Mich., have patronized the busy Cafe on the Beach for most of the 30 years they have been coming to Manatee.

“We just want it to stay the way it is,” Carole Beebe said emphatically. “We don’t care for the Key West thing.”

“We don’t need another Disney,” Jim Beebe chimed in.

Pat Hall, who moved to Bradenton from New York in 1995, was just as upset with the pending change.

“The people coming in don’t care about the local people,” Hall said. “They’re just coming here to make money.”

She said the current managers of the cafe and gift shop have built up a business by creating a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

Over the years, Dee Schaffer said she and her husband increased the business from the six tables with umbrellas to serving several hundred breakfasts and lunches a day.

Schaffer said she feels the county made a mistake by not choosing Vayias and Menihtas’ proposal, and has been telling her customers to contact county commissioners to voice their concerns.

“We’re fighting for our lives,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the local support and love.”

Vayias, who has run the cafe portion of the contract for seven years, said he was disappointed about not winning the bid.

“I think they were just looking for a change,” he said. But he challenged that, saying his daily performance is dictated by what the customers want.

“They’ve been happy the last seven years,” Vayias said, “We just wanted to continue to keep the happy.”

But Kahana said United Parks Services will work to win over the loyalty of the regulars.

“We’re hoping they (county parks and recreation department) will organize a work shop with the public,” Kahana said, “prior to making the final arrangements with us.

“This way we’ll get a real idea about their (the public’s) concerns,” he said. “Our success is going to depend on local support.”

The Enochs plan to move to Anna Maria Island and become part of the community, Kahana said.

The contract process

The committee that selected United Parks Services consisted of Cindy Turner, director of the county parks and recreation department; Elliot Falcione, executive manager of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau; and Melissa Assha, contract and buyer manager of the county purchasing division.

According to their report, United Parks Services won the bid because its offer included renovations to the building “to provide a fresh, pleasing upgrade in appearance.”

United Parks Services has the concession contract for Fort DeSoto Park in Pinellas County, and much of its proposal referred to what it provides at that location.

“United provided exceptional responses in all areas: food and beverage quality, operational vision, beach oriented essence, customer service programs, community involvement and participation, environmental consideration and marketing/advertising strategies,” the report read.

In contrast, of Cafe on the Beach LLC’s plan, the committee said, “Overall this proposal lacked creativity and vision, particularly it contains limited Capital Investment, relying on minor cosmetic changes.”

The report recognized that the current management of Cafe on the Beach “maintains a stable local customer base,” but also said “the proposal did not demonstrate efforts to stimulate our local economy by stimulating new patrons to visit our beaches who in turn could consume other services offered by local businesses, shop at our stores, book stays at our local hotels and more.”

The “effort to stimulate our local economy” was referring to United Parks Services’ proposal to expand on the products it plans to offer, such as equipment rentals, a Tropical Beverage Tiki Hut, and an Ice Cream and Coffee Cafe.

Some of these upgrades may be problematic, however, according to Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger.

Because Manatee Beach was established before Holmes Beach was chartered, its present use was grandfathered into the city’s code, he said.

“What’s there now is not conforming,” Bohnenberger said. “To expand its use would be difficult at best.”

The mayor also said the parking situation now at the beach creates problems for nearby businesses and residents.

“They’re already parking all along Manatee Avenue and in Publix’s parking lot,” Bohnenberger said.

No one from Holmes Beach or the island was on the selection committee, which would have helped, he said.

“We’re not trying to be hard-nosed,” the mayor said. “The code is what it is.”

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she has received hundreds of e-mails regarding the pending switch in management.

Whitmore said she heard about how the Schaffers, and then Vayias and Menihtas, provided a laid-back place to eat with great service.

“This is the character we sell all over the world,” she said. “We don’t want to look like Key West, or St. Pete Beach or Tampa.”

Whitmore said she voted against putting the contract out for bid last fall, and at the time thought the county should have extended the current contract.

“I’ll look at the proposal like any other one,” Whitmore said, “but is it consistent with the character of Holmes Beach and Anna Maria Island and what’s best for Manatee County?”

She said it was not just a matter of the bottom line.

“As a commissioner and mayor of Holmes Beach for 16 years, I’ve never had one complaint while they (the Schaffers and then Vayias and Menihtas) were the vendors.”

What’s next?

Negotiations on a new contract with United Parks Services are scheduled to begin Monday, with the county commission voting on the contract in May.

“I will vote against any commissioner who votes for the new contract,” Hall said. “They should think about the welfare of the people, not just about the money.”

She said she also would boycott the restaurant if it changed hands.

Cheryl and Joe Myers, who moved to Palmetto five years ago from Vermont, said they did not want to see changes, either.

“The service is quick and friendly,” Cheryl Myers said. “We eat here at least once a week.”

The couple said they enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of the beach and would try the new managers.

“But if it’s not any good, we’ll go somewhere else,” Cheryl Myers said.