Southwest Florida restaurants learn to struggle through summer doldrums

Southwest Florida restaurants learn to struggle through seasonal doldrums

Altin Meleqi makes pizza for customers Thusday afternoon.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY

Altin Meleqi makes pizza for customers Thusday afternoon.

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News (2)
Altin's Cafe and Grill was opened eight years ago by Altin and Pam Meleqi and began making hand-tossed pizza about a year ago. The restaurant is at 368 Fifth Ave. S. in Naples.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News (2) Altin's Cafe and Grill was opened eight years ago by Altin and Pam Meleqi and began making hand-tossed pizza about a year ago. The restaurant is at 368 Fifth Ave. S. in Naples.

Come summer, the owners of Altin's Cafe and Grill on Fifth Avenue South enlist family members to help. Business is so slow between June and September they are unable to afford their usual staff of six servers at both breakfast and lunch.

"Now it's just me and my husband," said Pam Meleqi, 38. "And if it wasn't for my family, I don't even know how we'd survive."

Modifying hours and closing up shop for weeks at a time are just some of the ways local restaurants survive the off-season in Southwest Florida. Those who choose to remain open year-round debate the prudence of offering deep discounts and coupons.

Meleqi and her husband, Altin Meleqi, 33, opened their restaurant at 368 Fifth Ave. S. in June of 2005 unaware just how slow summers were in Naples.

"That was even scarier," she said. "But we got our kinks out, and by season, we were ready."

Now the Meleqis close in September and change their hours, only offering dinner hours Thursday, Friday and Saturday from

June through August.

"(September) just seems to be the slowest month of all," Meleqi said. "And it's nice for us to be tourists somewhere once in a while."

Mike Reagen, president of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, said Collier County loses about a quarter of its population in the summer and the bulk of the 2 million annual visitors come during the winter months.

"Summer is always slow and that is a problem," he said.

But, he added, the Southwest Florida economy is creeping back, which could help businesses until the winter crowds return.

"I don't know about the rest of Florida, but here I think we're doing OK," Reagen said.

Keith Casey closed his KC American Bistro in the Pavilion Shopping Center on Vanderbilt Beach Road for the summer after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, LA Fitness began construction in the same plaza and Casey said he knew he wouldn't see much traffic. He closed again that summer.

"The Pavilion has been kind of a ghost town in the past," said Casey, 43, who plans to stay open this summer without offering the discounts some of his competitors rely on this time of year.

"It's a shortsighted economic policy," he said. "Naples Tomato flooded the market with coupons and they're gone."

The goal is to break even, and Casey hopes "pent-up demand" in his customers means they'll continue opting for the more expensive bottle of wine — even if they can't afford it yet.

"I think Americans will only sit on their laurels for so long before they say forget it, we're going to get the TV and we're going to go out to dinner," he said.

Deidre and Henry Diodati have owned and operated the Wharf Tavern Restaurant and Clam Bar on 10th Street South in downtown Naples for 21/2 years. For years, they've also run a host of restaurants and a bed and breakfast on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

While operating a business in a seasonal destination town is familiar, Deidre said the tavern is embarking on new territory this summer by trying to stay open throughout the year instead of closing.

"Quite honestly, that's like opening a new restaurant every year," Deidre, 46, said. "You have to start from square one with staff and so on."

Somewhat off the beaten path, Deidre said the tavern relies on advertising, deals and coupons to draw patrons. Closing last summer was a way of assessing how best to propel through a season, Deidre said.

"The restaurant business in general is difficult," she said, "but knowing how to navigate a seasonal location comes with a learning curve and it's not for everybody."

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