Anna Maria Oyster Bar Founder To Slow Down, Names Next CEO

The Spirit of Manatee Awards hosted by the Manatee Community Foundation in March was a celebration of volunteers, philanthropists and community-minded business leaders. One highlight was John and Amanda Horne, owners of Oysters Rock Hospitality, with six Anna Maria Oyster Bar locations in the Manatee-Sarasota market, winning the Mary E. Parker Lifetime Spirit Award.

A joke making the rounds at the luncheon, attended by some 500 people at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, was that John Horne was wearing pants. (Horne famously wears khaki shorts and colorful Hawaiian button-down shirts to nearly every event.) At the podium after the award was announced, Horne said he once promised his wife if they ever won the lifetime spirit award he would don pants.

But while Horne in pants brought some surprised looks, what really delivered the gasps was another unexpected moment: Horne, while not retiring, is beginning to transition out of the CEO role — which in AMOB lingo is chief executive oyster. The Bradenton-based company has some 400 employees, and in addition to the six AMOB locations the company owns St. Armands Circle staple Cafe L’Europe. (Officials decline to disclose total company revenue figures.)

Eleni Sokos, director of brand strategy at the company since October 2022 and executive vice president since March, is CEO-in-waiting. Sokos grew up in the restaurant business: her parents owned and operated Demetrio’s Pizza House on Cortez Road in Bradenton for some 45 years. And Sokos and her husband Jason own Kefi Streetside Cafe, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant and coffee shop in downtown Bradenton. (Kefi means the joyful beauty of feeling alive in Greek.)

“One day I think she’s going to take my job as chief executive oyster at Oysters Rock Hospitality,” Horne said from the dais at the event while he choked up, surrounded by a dozen or so employees, and, of course, a stunned Sokos.

“I looked over at the Manatee Chamber table and their jaws were wide open,” Horne recalled in an interview a few weeks after the luncheon.

Sokos, meanwhile, says her “heart was pounding” when Horne made the announcement at the event. They had talked about succession, and had a general plan. So Sokos knew something was coming — eventually. But she didn’t know when. And the week leading up to the event had actually been a tough one for the company, in personnel and operations matters. Tough enough where Horne kidded with Sokos, quipping a few times: “Are you sure you want this?”

“It was a really difficult week for everybody,” adds Sokos. “We say we do five-star fun here, but sometimes it’s not always easy” to have five-star fun while running the company.

Fun and jokes aside, there is a solid and simple business reason for the transition: time. Horne, 63, has been hustling in the restaurant business for some 40 years. He founded the first Anna Maria Oyster Bar in 1995, on the City Pier on Anna Maria. Before that he worked for Fast Eddie’s on Anna Maria, where started bussing tables and later did pretty much everything from front to back of the house roles for a decade. Before that Horne bussed tables at a country club in Bartow.

“I’ve been doing (Anna Maria Oyster Bar) for 28 years. I don’t have enough gas in the tank to do it another 28 years,” Horne says. “This will allow us to continue the Anna Maria Oyster Bar for customers for a long time and I will get to slow down. I will get to spend time with Amanda. I will get to spend time in the mountains.”

Sokos, 35, has been spending time working on her new role, leaning on her hospitality and other entrepreneurial ventures. That includes Sokos Solutions, a brand-focused marketing company she founded in 2017 that for a time counted Anna Maria Oyster Bar as a client.

“She has that entrepreneurial spirit. She’s never say die and she just makes it work and that’s what you have to have in this industry,” Horne says. “She’s also excellent at not kicking the can down the road. She’s great at making decisions.”

Sokos says one aspect she’s most proud of about the promotion to be the firm’s next CEO is “John and Amanda trust me.”

Her biggest challenge, she says, is continuing to make sure the right people are in the right roles. “The succession plan depends so much on the development of our team,” she says, “so developing our people is the No. 1 priority for me.”

Sokos, to that goal, has been rereading the 2022 book “Unreasonable Hospitality: The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect,” by New York restaurateur Will Guidara. The book, she says, is a deep dive into the difference between a smart restaurant concept and a customer-centric restaurant concept.

Sokos thinks often about where Oysters Rock Hospitality and the Anna Maria Oyster Bar brand fits into that, and where the brand will be in five, even 10 years. “We want to become the restaurant of choice for the next generation,” she says. “We want to cultivate that raving fandom.”

Mark Gordon

Business Observer