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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Nov. 13, 200112:00 PM EST

Impact of restaurant closings mixed

by: Glenn Tschimpke

Four downtown eateries have closed within the last month, forcing loyal patrons to go elsewhere for their dining experiences.

Jocks & Jills and St. Johns Tavern and Grill at the Landing closed suddenly Oct. 30, eliminating about 8,000 square feet of downtown restaurant space. More recently, Michelle Bomba’s in The Seminole Club and Hollywood Grill on East Forsyth Street folded operations. While each business had individual reasons for calling it quits, each leaves their customers looking for new places to eat. The law of supply and demand dictates that the remaining restaurants should benefit from the shrinking pool of downtown dining options. Yet results have been mixed among downtown restaurateurs.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised they closed,” said Scott Ballard, managing partner at The American Café in the Landing, referring to Jocks & Jills and St. Johns Grille and Tavern. “I was not prepared when they did close. Therefore, a couple days we had some issues not much different than a year ago. There used to be a restaurant called The Mill, where Vito’s [Italian Café] is. I came in one day and there was a big padlock on the door. For the rest of that week, it was kind of a struggle to adjust [employee] schedules and adjust food level to compensate for that increase in business. After a couple of days, we generally get those bugs worked out.”

Ballard said he has experienced a slight increase in customers since Jocks & Jills and St. Johns Tavern and Grill closed. But The American Café has been a traditionally strong tenant in a notoriously weak Landing, drawing relatively good business compared to its neighbors. Ballard explained the two restaurant closures could actually hurt his business in the long run.

“In a way, it is negative because people start saying, ‘Oh, the Landing is not making it again,’’’ he said. “I would like to think we can get some diversity in those two spaces when they do fill. The nice thing we had at the Landing before they closed is there was something for everybody.”

Across the Landing’s courtyard at neighboring Huey’s, manager Linda Lennon echoes Ballard’s sentiments, noting that the closure of the two restaurants cannot be considered the elimination of competition, but rather a detriment to the downtown retail center.

“I think what’s happening is when something closes like that, people tend to stay away from us because they always think there are problems,” she said. “When you talk to people and you tell people where you work, they’ll say, ‘I don’t go there because...’”

Lennon rattled off a list of reasons people stay away from the Landing, particularly at night, including perceptions of safety, security and the homeless.

With the exception of The American Café, most Landing restaurants aren’t exactly glowing about their sales. Benny Yousefzadeh opened Vito’s Italian Café last November. Economic conditions, terrorist attacks and slow summer months have made for a difficult first year for him.

“It’s been very slow,” he said. “Basically everybody’s been slow. We just started picking up in October.”

The closure of the two Landing restaurants gave his business a small boost.

“I’ve seen a little bit of difference,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of new faces since they’ve been closed. They’ve been coming in. All in all, it’s been good for me.”

Like his fellow Landing restaurateurs, at the end of the day Yousefzadeh doesn’t like the fact that two major tenants closed their doors.

“Of course it’s going to give [the Landing] a bad stigma because this is one of the biggest areas in downtown,” he said. “Just the Landing itself, it’s on the river front and it should be flocked with a bunch of people every single day.”

Off the river front, business has remained constant for downtown’s collection of lunch-dependent cafes and grills. Although Southern Paradise on West Forsyth Street offers a menu similar to the defunct Michelle Bombas, owner Carolyn Herre said she hasn’t seen her clientele increase.

“I haven’t noticed that as of yet,” she said. “It’s pretty much our regulars.”

Nevertheless, last Thursday Southern Paradise had its second-best Thursday lunch crowd ever.

Johnny Varamogiannis has seen business stay constant at Johnny’s Deli on West Adams Street.

“We’ve maintained business,” he said. “It’s not busier or slower.”

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