Fun-loving restaurant owner John Horne takes a "why not now" approach to growth.
by: Mark Gordon, Managing Editor
This article originally appeared in the Business Observer on December 9, 2022.
The west Bradenton headquarters of Oysters Rock Hospitality, parent of Anna Maria Oyster Bar, has its own version of a curse jar.
Yet instead of a curse, employees with the fast-growing brand of family-friendly, casual seafood locations, have to drop a dollar in the jug if they say the word “store” instead of restaurants. The difference between the two, says founder John Horne, who doubles as Chief Executive Oyster — that’s a real title — is both symbolic and substantive. And in a real-life example of how much the company is growing, the word store is being dropped a lot: through Dec. 2 there was $68 in the jar, plus five AMOB Bucks, staff currency used for meals and merchandise. The money will be donated at the end of the year to the company’s Dive into Reading fund.
“Stores have customers,” Horne says. “Restaurants have guests.”
He adds: “We’re not selling T-shirts. We’re selling service.”
Oysters Rock Hospitality is primed to serve a lot more guests in the coming months and years, under ambitious expansion plans that include potentially new markets in Florida.
That goes for both the Anna Maria Oyster Bar brand and another concept, under the Café L’Europe name.
On the latter, Oysters Rock Hospitality acquired Cafe L’Europe, a well-known restaurant on St. Armands Circle for 50 years, in February. In addition, two more Anna Maria Oyster Bars are now in the works, which would bring the total to six. That includes the first AMOB outside Manatee County, in North Port, south Sarasota County. More expansion: Horne is currently scouting for AMOB locations in both Venice and Pinellas County. (Officials decline to disclose specific revenue data, saying sales are up a projected 20% in 2022 over 2021 and are expected to grow 40% next year.)
While seemingly counterintuitive given high inflation, recession worries, supply chain issues and more, Horne, 61, says the growth plans are actually the just-right time. Not that the company is immune to those challenges, but while others retreat, opportunities abound, say company officials. And Horne says he’s chasing more locations because after some 30 years with the core four Manatee locations he feels like he has a best-in-class management team to do it right. “I knew we weren’t always going to stay at four,: says Horne, a prominent lobbying voice in the Florida restaurant and hospitality industry. “Now we have the infrastructure to build up for more.”
That infrastructure includes the company’s 350 employees, with some 120 who have been there at least 10 years. Employees with tenures of a decade or longer are feted at an annual celebratory longevity event. That’s one of several fun benefits Horne and his wife, Oysters Rock ‘Royal Consort’ Amanda Horne, have been providing for years. The 2022 event was held at PopStroke in Sarasota. Previous events have been at Bucs games, with a steak and lobster tailgate tent; a day trip to Disney World; a Tampa Bay Rays game in the owner’s suite; and an overnight trip to Biloxi, Mississippi.
A rockstars-want-to-work with rockstars vibe at events like that runs deep at the company, says CFO — Chief Financial Oyster — Valerie Lind. While she’s only been with Oysters Rock Hospitality since April, she’s fully leaned into the culture. “Everyone here believes in excellence,” she says, “and we all feed off each other.”
In addition to Lind, the current leadership team — the group Horne says gave him the confidence to expand rapidly — includes: Director of Brand Strategy Eleni Sokos, who joined the company in October; COO Chris Frawley, who joined the company in May 2021; and Director of Development and Procurement Robert Baugh, who joined in July.
A leadership team like that is a long way from when Horne opened the first Anna Maria Oyster Bar, in 1996. That location was on the Anna Maria City Pier. While that spot has since moved to Bridge Street on the island, the first location, says the company on its website “will always be home to us because that’s where we established regulars and made a name for ourselves with our fresh seafood and fun atmosphere.”
Three more AMOBs followed: one on U.S. 41, just north of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, one on Cortez Road West in West Bradenton and one in Ellenton at U.S. 301 and Interstate 75.
AMOB No. 5 will be in east Manatee County, in the booming UTC area. That location, in the Square at UTC, was formerly a Newk’s Eatery. Location No. 6, meanwhile, will be in North Port, in what was the Family Table Restaurant. Horne acquired the Family Table in September. Both locations, currently under renovation, are expected to open in the spring.
“Everyone we’ve encountered in North Port shares our excitement for Anna Maria Oyster Bar’s sixth location,” Frawley says in a statement announcing the news. We’ve found the perfect location to plant our flag in South Sarasota County.”
That flag got planted not long after Oysters Rock closed on the deal, when Hurricane Ian ripped through town. John and Amanda Horne and some others came down to the location to serve hot food to residents and workers involved in cleanup efforts. “When we provided our pop-up meal service after the storm came through, we found the people so warm and welcoming,” Horne says in a separate statement. “North Port has a demographic that includes guests of all ages. We’re eager to convert this gorgeous property into an Oyster Bar and be part of the community as soon as possible.”
As Anna Maria Oyster Bar plows ahead to a half-dozen locations, another Oysters Rock brand, Café L’Europe, is just getting started.
A staple of the St. Armands Circle restaurant scene for generations, Ron and Julie Milton, owners of Sarasota Scene magazine, bought Café L’Europe in 2016. Horne and Milton were acquaintances, and the restaurant guy became something of an unofficial counselor for Milton, offering advice on hiring or other issues. One day during the pandemic, Milton, on the phone with Horne, wondered out loud if Horne would ever consider buying Café L’Europe. Horne hadn’t really thought about it. But he started to, and soon he and Amanda, on Feb. 1, acquired their first non-AMOB spot.
Oysters Rock is now working on a renovation and reimagination project at Café L’Europe, something company officials consider a tightrope walk between past and future. “This is a classic Sarasota restaurant and it’s a great opportunity for us,” says Baugh, head of development and procurement. Baugh was COO of The Chiles Group, another restaurant company on Anna Maria Island, before he joined Oysters Rock.
Baugh says the tightrope walk comes from doing enough to meet the demands of newer customers, who lean more casual in design and experimental in flavors, without ignoring more traditional customers. It aims to do that while celebrating the restaurant’s rich history, which includes once being the real estate office of Sarasota circus icon John Ringling. Another goal? Improve and enhance the wine offerings. “We really want to get on the Wine Spectator list,” notes Baugh, of the famed hospitality magazine’s heavily-followed catalog.
From Cafe L’Europe to Anna Maria Oyster Bar, an overarching goal is consistency, on everything from appetizers to desserts to brand positioning. “If somebody comes in and orders something five or six times they’re going to get that every time,” Baugh says, “and if we do it wrong one time we’re in trouble.”
Sokos likewise says Oysters Rock will have “to step up our brand game” as it grows outside the Bradenton and Sarasota markets, maybe even with multiple Cafe L’Europes at some point. “We have to be top of mind,” she adds, as the company targets a new customer base.
And, no matter the location, Horne likes to remind the team what they are selling — besides plenty of fish, steaks, wings, oysters, burgers and margaritas — is an experience and a memory. “No one goes out to restaurants to have crappy food or terrible customer service,” Horne says. “People go out to eat to have fun. We want to provide five-star fun.”
Pound for pound
Inflation is one of the biggest challenges facing restaurateur John Horne. He’s the founder of Oysters Rock Hospitality, parent of Anna Maria Oyster Bar, a four-location chain in the Manatee-Sarasota market with two more in the works. Oysters Rock also owns Cafe L’Europe on St. Armands Circle in Sarasota. “You can’t just keep raising prices every time you get a bigger invoice,” says Horne, who opened the first AMOB in 1996.
As one example, Horne says the company bought 130,000 pounds of french fries in 2022. With new locations and growth, he expects to buy 200,000 pounds in 2023. During the bid process for suppliers and vendors, he was told to expect at least a 33% increase over the previous year. One supplier would be raising prices 50%. He can’t raise prices at that level on fries, much less on other food, such as steaks. One answer? Buy in bulk — which he plans to do in 2023, with the expansion. “Volume,” says Horne, “covers all sins in the restaurant business.”