‘We’re open,’ business owners say, looking to bring back customers during red tide bloom

Restaurateurs are coming together to say they are open despite red tide

Waterfront restaurants are spreading the message that there may be red tide, but they are open for business.
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Waterfront restaurants are spreading the message that there may be red tide, but they are open for business.

Loud chatter filled the covered outdoor seating area that overlooked the Gulf of Mexico at The Beach House in Bradenton Beach on Wednesday evening.

Before they sat down to dinner, dozens of local business owners, representatives of elected officials, government agencies and several others gathered to hear a few speakers discuss more about red tide, what’s being done and what they can do to help bring back business.

A few customers sat in the sand line, and a few families played on the beach. But other than those few people and the group gathered for the meeting, the shore was nearly empty. It’s becoming an unfortunate and familiar sight for business owners as signs of red tide vary.

The algae bloom that is red tide, Karenia brevis, has made its presence known along the coast of Anna Maria Island for nearly two weeks.

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Amanda Escobio, owner of Sea-renity Beach Spa and Bou-tiki, said she has had a significant loss of business and even had an employee quit over the red tide. Wednesday night was her first beach-side massage appointment in two weeks.

“A lot of people are very nervous,” Escobio said.

She’s not alone. Several businesses have told the Bradenton Herald they’ve seen a decline in sales since the algae bloom moved in.

The Chiles Group, which runs three waterfront restaurants — The Sandbar in Anna Maria, The Beach House in Bradenton Beach and Mar Vista Dockside in Longboat Key — hosted a meeting Wednesday to discuss red tide-related issues.

Holding a clipboard, Sandy Gilbert, chairman and CEO of Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START), stepped up and grabbed the microphone and faced the crowd that had gathered outside around the small amplifier.

He has talked about red tide for nearly two decades now, and said he thinks businesses are the secret to making a difference.

“The environmental people don’t have the following. .... But the tourism business is losing money, that’s a quantified reason to do something,” Gilbert said.

Ken Lawson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, said with the impact they’ve seen on businesses in the state, they are facilitating an economic survey for businesses. But right now, they are focused on sending the message of “businesses are open” to tourists and doing it at the right time.

Restaurants are also trying to put out that message.

“We’re telling customers that red tide is a natural phenomenon and we understand that, but at the end of the day we’re open. I’m standing out here on the beach at the restaurant, in the sand, I’m not coughing, there’s no dead fish,” said Robert Baugh, chief operating officer of the Chiles Group.

But he said they’re asking customers to understand when they come to eat, they are supporting local fishermen and other contributors too.

The decrease in business is because those visiting the island — or not — are not getting a full picture of what’s going on, Baugh said.

The Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is ready to commit money to marketing the area and bringing visitors back, said bureau communications director Kelly Clark. Their biggest battle, she said, is perception.

“The thing that sets us apart from the rest is that Manatee County is doing an exceptional job cleaning up the beaches,” Clark said. “Restaurants and businesses have expressed how wonderful they’ve been.”

She is crossing her fingers the worst is past, but admits red tide is unpredictable.

Just off the Bridge Street pier on the island’s bay side, John Horne, president of Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurants, said they’re starting to see fish swimming in the waters again. When he stopped at the pier location for lunch Tuesdsay, Horne said he saw people sitting outside to eat.

He said social media is one tool to help people see what is going on through pictures.

“It’s a collaboration,” Horne said. “We’re all working together letting people know we’re open for business.”

Another meeting will be held at Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar at 4 p.m. Thursday. Those who attend will get a discount on their meal.

These meetings are an effort to bring the community together and start talking, said Baugh.

“We need to make sure people hear us like Ken Lawson with Visit Florida who’s here today, there are representatives from (Representative Vern) Buchanan’s office and Mr. (state Senator Bill) Galvano’s office. They need to hear that this is important when they’re making decisions,” Baugh said. “We’re not going to stop.”

Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources director Charlie Hunsicker told the crowd Manatee County is in the “the best position for recovery” from red tide. Places like Perico and Robinson preserves and the fish sanctuary provide a nursery stock of waters not impacted by red tide to quickly revitalize the area.

“We’ve done a good job of controlling excess nutrients (in the water),” Hunsicker said. “Sarasota Bay is the cleanest it’s been since the 50s.”

He said having a higher water quality makes the area more vulnerable to observed mortality with red tide because there is more life there in the waters.

The Chiles Group also organized a meeting Tuesday with other restaurateurs, county officials, political candidates and business owners to discuss the long- and short-term problems and impacts of red tide on the local economy and coastal businesses. Representatives from Florida Sen. Bill Galvano’s office and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan’s office were also present at the meeting, Chiles Group said.

Manatee Public Beach and Cortez Beach on Anna Maria Island both showed a remission of red tide Wednesday afternoon as cleanup efforts and shifting winds seemed to help keep the algae bloom at bay.

Red tide conditions on Anna Maria Island beaches seemed to have improved Wednesday thanks to cleanup efforts, along with changing winds. Some played in the water outside the Beach House, and the sand was clear of debris and dead fish. As the temperature dropped in the evening, the empty shoreline was even more inviting.