First Coast Success: Mike Schneider, The Loop Pizza Grill
About 40 years ago, Mike and Terry Schneider started in the restaurant business and a little more than 30 years ago, they developed a concept that quickly took hold in Jacksonville and now can be found at 14 locations in Florida and North Carolina.
It's the Loop Pizza Grill.
The Schneiders didn't stop there. They also created the upscale Bistro AIX in San Marco, which is near the site where they started their restaurant careers with a popular corner restaurant and bar called AppleJacks.
Mike Schneider graduated in 1972 from Florida State University, where he majored in mass communications with a minor in theater. He sought production work in Hollywood but found his true calling in the pub and restaurant business.
He returned from Hollywood to Tallahassee and helped run the J.J.'s college pub, where he met Terry.
When his father became ill and could no longer run his corner tavern in Jacksonville, Mike and Terry married and took over the business, renaming it Applejacks, the name of the house band at J.J.'s, so Tallahassee friends and customers could find them.
Mike and Terry, who have divorced, remain business partners in The Loop. They also are partners in Bistro AIX with Ann Riley.
The Daily Record interviewed Mike Schneider for "First Coast Success, "a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.
The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.
Following are edited excerpts from the full transcript.
Let's start with Applejacks, which was at San Marco Boulevard and Nira Street. When did you start that?
That was a long time ago. That was 1973. Terry was 18 years old when we opened AppleJacks. I was 23 and we had met in Tallahassee. I had graduated from college and she was a freshman in college and we ended up moving to Jacksonville and opening AppleJacks in San Marco.
What was the concept?
The concept was a transformation of what I inherited. I grew up in Jacksonville and in my high school years, my parents decided they wanted to go into business for themselves. For many years my mother had been a waitress. She was a waitress at Beach Road Chicken Dinners, which I still love, and Alonso's Italian Restaurant at Beach and University boulevards. My dad worked in the grocery business, as produce manager, and worked in package stores. They decided to go into business themselves and they opened a tavern.
They opened a small blue-collar tavern in San Marco and called it Sam's Place. (Sam was Schneider's father's name.) I would visit it frequently, just to say hello to them, and I saw their clientele and the way they worked and I said, you know, this is something I would never want to do, ever.
Years later, my father suffered a series of strokes and they decided that he could no longer operate the business and she wasn't up for the challenge of doing it by herself, so they determined they would put it on the market and sell it.
I was between careers, having not been successful in a career that I thought I was preparing myself for, so Terry and I offered to take it over. Rather than selling it for, I think the asking price was $6,000, we would just take care of you for the rest of your life.
We had a lot of aspirations ourselves. But our view and our lifestyle and our age difference didn't blend with the clientele that my parents had cultivated. We dramatically changed it from a blue-collar neighborhood tavern to something more akin to a college pub.
We lost all the business that my parents had. People were very upset. The neighborhood tavern is a very prized possession — the patrons feel this connectedness to it — and when we changed it and we didn't look like they looked, we didn't talk like they talked, they left, not too happily. So we started from scratch and built it and we enjoyed it and we worked it every day for about eight years.
The story gets long and convoluted. At one point we had achieved some level of success and had actually created more than a graduate experience. After college, this really turned into a business. People loved it. They liked what we did, the food and the music. We decided to expand it to a second location and borrowed money to open that second location.
Being inexperienced business people — because after all, this started as a party and ended up a business — we hadn't quite gotten that level of skill. We were undercapitalized and before we ever opened I had to go back to the bank for more money. The bank wouldn't loan us that money, so we borrowed from family and friends and opened this second version of Applejacks and it lasted four months.
Where was that?
It was at Arlington Road and Cesery Boulevard. There was an old Shakey's Pizza that had closed. The concept of AppleJacks with the lunch, the happy hour, the dinner and then the live music every night, it worked in San Marco but it didn't work on Cesery Boulevard.
We had to close that location and we were facing this large bank loan that we had taken out and I just didn't see how we were going to get out of this hole.
One of the things we had thought about was bankruptcy. Unfortunately, my cousin, Judge George Proctor, was the federal bankruptcy judge, so I could not see going before my cousin and embarrassing my family. After all, I pledged to take care of my family and not humiliate them, so the only other idea we came up with was to take the equipment from the second AppleJacks and come up with a new concept and scrape up some more money and open up a business that might at least generate enough revenue to keep the bank loan current so we wouldn't have to file bankruptcy.
That is when we created the idea for what The Loop was. And we opened The Loop in San Marco. And it's still there. It opened in 1981, so that's 32 years ago.
How did you come up with the concept of The Loop Pizza Grill?
It was survival. We needed something that had a broad appeal. So our menu was pizza and burgers. We needed something that would be available two meal periods a day, seven days a week, and would be well received by a broad spectrum of guests from 8 years of age to 80.
We didn't offer live entertainment and we didn't create a club or pub atmosphere. It was family-focused and who doesn't like hamburgers and who doesn't like pizza?
That was the focus and we fine-tuned the concept by pulling up Terry's memories of growing up in the Chicago area. The original Loop had a Chicago theme to it. We thought that the hamburger would be the motivator to bring the lunch crowd in, knowing that some people would have pizza at lunch but that the majority of people would choose the burger.
We had the pizza in the evening, knowing that people would order hamburgers as well. So we just tried to give people enough reasons to choose us for lunch and dinner every day.
How did you evolve to 14 locations?
It's not always a straight line when you're in the restaurant business for 40 years. You do some things right to be here 40 years and you also have plenty of opportunity to mess things up.
Along the way we had great successes with opening new locations in the right place. We had openings that turned into closings.
We operated the original San Marco Loop. I was behind the counter, every day and every night. Terry worked there a lot while she was raising our three children. I stayed behind that front counter for seven years.
At that point, again my No. 1 goal was to keep from filing bankruptcy, so we were fortunate enough to have a revenue stream that allowed me to keep that bank loan with American National Bank current and eventually pay it off.
In the meantime, The Loop became popular. It took maybe seven, eight months for it to catch on and fortunately the media was kind to us.
There was a (Florida) Times-Union story about Jacksonville's pizza and that particular writer, Phil Kloer, gave us five anchovies.
He was rating the pizzas one to five anchovies and gave his opinion because pizza is very subjective. In his opinion — and his opinion was very important to us because he was a food critic — he said that he liked ours the best.
When people read the paper that day they either lined up to agree with Phil or they lined up to disagree with Phil. Fortunately they were lined up in front of our door. From that day on, The Loop was popular.
After working at that location from behind the counter for seven years, I said perhaps we can do more of these. We opened a second location in Mandarin in 1987 and then for the next few years, each year we would open another location in the Jacksonville area.
In the early '90s we decided that maybe, maybe, The Loop was something franchisable. We created systems and the format to offer it as a franchise and we put it out there without marketing, basically. We just had the system in place.
People who were exposed to The Loop, as guests or through word-of-mouth, approached us with their intention of learning if they could be a Loop franchisee. We began with that in the early '90s.
You're up to 14?
We are down to 14. You never learn everything there is to learn about what you do, whether you are a musician or a furniture-maker or restauranteur.
Sometimes you hit wrong notes on your instruments, sometimes your saw slips and sometimes you make mistakes as a restaurant franchise company in selecting just the right franchisee or approving the right franchise location.
There are other variables that you can't predict — divorce, health issues that may result in an untimely death of a franchise operator. Then there's an event that took place five or six years ago. It was the Great Recession, the one of biblical proportions.
The combination of some mistakes that we had made with franchisee selection, probably some training, some systems, bad luck, bad recession, we went from 30 Loop restaurants operating with 90 under contract to 14 open and one under contract. That's where we are today.
We have gone through the recession, we've worked on those systems that we felt needed revision and we are ready to roll out a reinvented version of The Loop.
Do those exist?
One exists. We opened our new prototype in the (St. Johns) Town Center area the last day of November and it is located not in the heart of the Town Center, but closer to UNF (the University of North Florida) and part of the Town Center north where you have the Publix and the Total Wine.
This was something we had planned in 2005 before the recession when we saw the need to revisit our systems, our brand, all those variables that go into having a positive business model.
It's been on the back burner since 2005, but we saw enough positive evidence that there is life after the recession, so we invested the money to create the new look, the new vision and we put it in place in the new Town Center and it's doing quite well.
How does it work? How does it look different?
If Terry had been able to be here today — she is the creative force, she is the designer and she is the foodie — I'm sure she could be very verbal and give some perfect language to describe the new look. I have a tough enough time wrapping my mind around her vision much less trying to communicate it for her.
But it's a feel that is open, it's bright, it has kind of an urban edginess to it. The surfaces are diverse and there is quite a bit of large bold art on the walls.
Terry was originally an artist. Our daughter's an investor in that location. She owns an art gallery here in town. So there was kind of a blending of Terry's and Hillary's love for art and our business of owning a restaurant.
I think it is attractive and exciting, maybe a little sexy, the look and the feel, the colors, the smells, the sounds. There are a thousand details to a restaurant and I'm sure there are a thousand details to a restaurant design.
But hopefully we have the right concept, with the right menu and the right style of service and the right people and personalities and hospitality characteristics and feel of the venue.
You have another restaurant, Bistro AIX, which is at San Marco Boulevard and Phillips Street, just a block from the original Applejacks site. How did you come up with Bistro AIX?
We had the Loop concept for so long since 1981 and again this whole journey of coming up with different restaurant concepts, building them, operating them, began in 1973, so it's a 40-year period and we started as a young couple, especially Terry at 18, and over a period of time, no matter what business you're in, you evolve.
If you are fortunate enough to have a livelihood where you can create things, chances are your creation is going to be more of a reflection of where you are at that time or where you think you might be in the next few years rather than where you were 10 years ago or 20 or, in our case, 40 years.
As we matured and traveled and tasted and the culture that we live in and America evolved and changed, our vision for a restaurant evolved as well.
And 15 or so years ago, as Terry and I began to evolve the Loop, it was evolving to a place where I thought it was on the verge of going over a culinary cliff that could have been disastrous.
I suggested at that point, rather than to continue to evolve the Loop into what it had been to a chef-focused café, why don't we do another concept?
By this point in Terry's life, she had become I think the term might be a Francophile. She loved everything French and had traveled to the South of France and made lifelong friends on her visits there.
The vision she had was to create a chef-focused neighborhood French brasserie or bistro. I was all for it because it gave me reassurance that The Loop wasn't going to be transformed to the point where we would have to change the name from The Loop to Le Loop.
I was all for this idea and that is where Bistro AIX came from. It was inspired by her favorite place in the world, Provence in the South of France.
What's next? Do you have more concepts brewing?
You know that evolutionary process, that transformation as you move along life's continuum. I'm 63 and I am much more risk-averse than I was at 53 or 23.
My age combined with the fragility of the economy, I still do not have 100 percent confidence in opening additional upscale concepts.
I have total confidence in that price point and that demographic that The Loop or other concepts similar to The Loop are.
Prior to the recession we had definitely wanted to grow more upscale casual restaurants that could be sister restaurants with Bistro AIX, but with the recession, I just saw so much risk that I personally was against it and I probably convinced Terry to be against it.
If the economy would continue to gain traction, I think I would be open to doing another concept. Not sure what it would be.
I've learned all these years to ask Terry if I like that, and she will tell me if I like it or not. And I trust her intuitiveness, her vision.
Do you have any advice for anyone who might want to start a restaurant?
It is so much more difficult today than it was when we started in 1973, but I have been encouraged by what I've been reading and seeing with the food trucks. That is such an opportunity for someone who has the entrepreneurial passion, and has a passion for food. It allows them to be totally creative and unique and individual and offer something that no one else is offering. Maybe that is a good entryway into the restaurant business.
Another way is to get your culinary training working under a good chef in a restaurant and learn as much as you can about not only the food but about how the business operates.
If you are fortunate, if you're lucky, if you are hardworking enough, talented enough, you might be able to find backing from someone that believes in you and they love your food and they love your personality and they realize that you have a business acumen to go with the food skills, because it is so much more than cooking.
You see that with some of the most popular chefs of today. They are not just great cooks, they are extraordinary marketers, astute businessmen, and they are the ones that have reality TV programs.
I think there is a pathway even with the economy and tightness of money and the increased competition that from a street or from a kitchen, you can work your way to a restaurant.
Are you a good cook?
I am not a good cook at all. I am not a foodie. If anything I'm a fast foodie. I probably eat more hamburgers than Wimpy, if you remember the cartoon character. I'm a hamburger expert, hot dog expert, thank you.