2727 Bayshore Drive, Naples, FL
NAPLES — At the Bayshore Landing Cafe, the sound of silence is not a song — it’s a reality.
Robyn and Kenny Schoessel, the cafe’s owners, closed the live music and listening lounge July 6 to end the financial and emotional strain that the business was putting on their marriage.
“I saw pretty quickly in the last couple of weeks that I could either be married to this business or to my husband, and that’s where I had to make a choice,” she said.
Before the venue was the Bayshore Landing Cafe, it was the second incarnation of Bayshore Coffee Company, a hip live music restaurant that had opened in 2004.
Donna Hall and her daughter, Chris Hall-Futrell, the third in a series of former owners of the Coffee Company, took the restaurant over in 2007. They turned the Coffee Company into one of the few places in Naples where local musicians and their fans could connect.
Robyn, who is a folk and Bluegrass singer and song writer, even got some of her first paying gigs at the Coffee Company.
“That’s where I really started playing with the band (Monroe Station),” she said.
Hall and Hall-Futrell moved the restaurant less than a mile up the road to the Palm Tree Plaza at the end of April 2009, despite complaints from customers that the move would disrupt the restaurant’s success.
The mother and daughter team characterized the relocation as an upgrade, but by November of that year Hall and Hall-Futrell announced the Coffee Company was closing.
Robyn decided to step in. Her goal was to continue to create a place that would attract local and national musicians and would expand the Naples live-music scene.
The Schoessels re-opened the business under the new name in February in the same Palm Tree Plaza location.
Sitting in the cafe the Thursday before she closed it for business, Robyn reflected on the struggles and virtues of being a small business owner and a musician. Although she admitted she was overworked, she characterized the venture as an investment.
“Kenny and I saw the opportunity,” she said.
But four days later, Robyn’s cafe was defunct.
During the weekend, Robyn and Kenny reviewed the cafe’s finances to decide if they could renew the lease for another year. It was then that Kenny decided they couldn’t make it another month, according to Robyn.
“Kenny sat down with me and we looked at everything on paper, and he just made the decision that he wasn’t going to be able to support it any longer,” she said.
Star — and dish washer
Robyn is making peace with it.
“I’m still really sad, it’s a big loss ... I put a lot of myself in it for eight months or so, but I think God has another plan for us,” she said.
Before closing the cafe, the Schoessels worked six days a week, resting only on Sundays to go to church, she recalled.
Kenny has more business experience, according to Robyn, but neither had worked in the administrative side of the music or restaurant business. Robyn’s knowledge of the food industry was limited to waitressing jobs she’d used to keep her afloat through college. Robyn also had experience on stage, but not with booking acts, and so she learned how to find talent and bring them to her cafe. That added another administrative layer to her work.
The couple took turns swapping kitchen and hosting duties; they were the cooks, the wait staff, the bartenders, the managers — and often the entertainment. Kenny’s son, Justin, 25, friends and other family members helped when they could because the Schoessels couldn’t afford to hire any extra staff.
They washed all the dishes by hand every night.
“Washing the dishes probably took the biggest physical toll on us. It would be at the end of the night and we were just exhausted and that’s the last thing we wanted to do,” she said.
She still played her own music, too. Robyn hosted the open mic nights on Wednesdays, and she and Monroe Station, her bluegrass band, held concerts there once a month.
But when she was performing at the cafe, she would see the dirty dishes on people’s tables and had to suppress the urge to jump off stage to clean them.
“It was hard to separate the two things. I really had a sense of ownership,” she said.
Quiet summer; rent woes
Once the winter season ended, regular customers started heading north and then business became hit or miss.
Robyn she tried negotiating with Sammy Alleman, her landlord at the Palm Tree Plaza, for a “more realistic” rent rate but was unsuccessful. The Schoessels have to continue to pay the rent until their lease ends Dec. 31.
Chris Hall-Futrell, one of the former owners of the Bayshore Coffee Company, had a similar complaint when they closed their business last year.
“It was just a rough journey with the economy and having a rent we couldn’t afford,” Chris Hall-Futrell told the Daily News in November 2009.
Alleman, who said he cannot reveal lease rates because of confidentiality agreements, denies speaking with Robyn about lowering the cafe’s rent. He also denies claims that his rates are too high.
He says he believes he’s being used as a scapegoat by both of his former tenants.
“People are always looking for someone to blame,” he said.
Closed windows of opportunity
Robyn tried other alternatives to ease the financial strain, but faced more rejection. The Schoessels applied to receive grant money from the Community Redevelopment Agency, which had about $170,000 to distribute to businesses with a creative focus in the Bayshore Landing Triangle’s proposed cultural district.
The CRA was formed in 2000 “to alleviate slum and blight” in two areas of Collier County: The Bayshore Gateway Triangle and Immokalee Redevelopment Areas. The Bayshore Landing Cafe sat in the CRA’s proposed cultural district, which encompasses about 1,900 acres and stretches from Davis Boulevard to the east of the Naples Botanical Garden.
In 2008, when it was still The Bayshore Coffee Company, the venue was central to CRA’s plans for the Bayshore Gateway Triangle’s cultural district.
But by the time the Schoessels applied for money, the CRA had run out of funds.
Sue Trone, a project manager for the Bayshore Gateway Triangle Redevelopment Area recalls it as an “unfortunate situation.”
“We were very much wanting to help her. That’s a business that we’re definitely excited about,” she said.
Robyn visited the CRA office again the week before closing the cafe to see if she could qualify for anything, according to Trone.
“We had discussed working on a grant for her this fall,” Trone said. “(Robyn) had been unsure that she was going to renew the lease.”
However, if the Schoessels had received CRA grant money, those funds would have only covered exterior improvements, not the day-to-day costs, according to Robyn.
The Bayshore Gateway Triangle staff is currently crafting a marketing package of incentives to attract artists and other “local creative businesses” to move to the area.
“(The incentives) would help businesses that have a focus on the arts. It would assist them with sales tax and rent,” Trone said.
The Collier County Commission will to review and would have to approve the incentives. Trone expects that could happen by October, the start of the CRA’s next fiscal year.
That is too late for the Bayshore Landing Cafe. The Schoessels paid for every business-related expense — from the rent to the toilet paper — by themselves, and the money they had set aside for the venture ran out.
“We don’t believe in debt,” Robyn said.
A closing, not a death
Trone said the CRA was disappointed when it learned of the Schoessels’ decision to close the cafe, but she believes the cultural district is thriving.
“I think that it would be mistaken to say that the Bayshore Landing suffered from a dire lack of local support — even on evenings I went, the place was pretty full,” Trone said.
Russ Morrison, a local musician, photographer and financial advisor, met Robyn through the Bluegrass music scene. He’s been promoting local acoustic bands, including his own, for several years. Morrison often scouted talent for the cafe and his band even played there a few times. He was disappointed to hear the cafe was closing, but was not surprised.
“I kind of had a feeling … they were struggling trying to make a decision where to go,” he said.
Morrison said Collier is still a “seasonal county.”
“(Robyn and Kenny) stuck their neck out to do this when everybody knew it was a challenge. But it’s a tough battle to get through a summer here anyway, even in the good times,” Morrison said.
He believes people need to turn their televisions off and spend their time and money at local businesses if they want to keep places like the cafe open.
“Otherwise it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Morrison and Robyn were able to work with the owners of Fred’s, another Naples restaurant, to relocate most of the cafe’s scheduled acts and events, such as Bluegrass Fridays.
Robyn and Monroe Station will be playing there this Friday. She hopes to continue to work with Fred’s to keep attracting new talent to the area.
“It was all for the music, that’s what kept me going everyday. Maybe now it’s just taking a different form — one that will be even less of a burden on Kenny and I, but will still let me see part of that creative vision be manifested,” she said.
Robyn believes the “small-but-resilient” Naples music scene will survive the cafe’s closing.
“Venues come and go, unfortunately, but the music is going to live on, the community is going to live on. And that’s what gives me hope now,” she said.