Angelo & Son's Restaurant Finds the Economy is as Big a Challenge as Extreme Weather
Rough Seas in Panacea Angelo & Son’s Seafood Restaurant fought its way back from a devastating hurricane, but the Wakulla County landmark now faces a new threat from a sputtering economy By Bruce Ritchie Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
More than four years after being battered by Hurricane Dennis, Angelo & Son’s Seafood Restaurant is being tossed around again — this time by a turbulent coastal economy.
Property “for sale” signs, closed businesses and fewer cars along U.S. Highway 98 have translated into fewer customers for the 60-year-old restaurant operation. But manager Jennifer Petrandis says she’s confident the business will make it through the tough economy and will be stronger as a result.
“I’m hoping we’ve made it through the worst of it,” she said as customers began trickling through the doors on a recent Friday night.
For most of the past six decades, members of the Petrandis family have operated a restaurant along Ochlockonee Bay, featuring fresh, locally caught seafood along with views of golden sunsets, sea birds, boats and billowing thunderstorms off the coast.
But other views along U.S. Highway 98, the scenic byway along the coast of Franklin and Wakulla counties, are different. The highway is littered with victims of the economic downturn and changing times.
The Landing seafood restaurant and hotel in Panacea closed in 2008, following the Harbor House restaurant in 2007. Just across the street from Angelo & Son’s is The Oaks restaurant and hotel, which has been closed at least eight years.
But Angelo & Son’s has remained a venerable coastal landmark. Three generations of the Petrandis family have operated there since 1945, catching the very shrimp, grouper and snapper that are served along with hushpuppies, Greek salads and fried green tomatoes.
Angelo’s seemed to have suffered a mortal blow from Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Although the storm made landfall near Pensacola more than 150 miles away, its storm surge damaged homes and businesses in Wakulla and Franklin counties.
Photos now on the wall of the restaurant show the waves spraying through the deck boards and surf sloshing through the restaurant. Angelo’s looked like a raft being helplessly tossed in the sea.
But Angelo Petrandis was determined not to let his restaurant, where his children were raised from playing with toys to busing tables, suffer the same fate as some other storm-damaged businesses.
Petrandis and his son, Thomas, rebuilt a larger restaurant at a cost of nearly $6 million, using family members as contractor and designer. The kitchen was doubled in size, and another 100 seats were added for a capacity of 350.
And when it reopened in 2007, the customers came back in droves — for a while, said Jennifer Petrandis, who is Thomas’ wife. But then gas prices spiked to $4 a gallon later that year, and travel to the coast slacked off.
Restaurant sales dropped by 28 percent in 2009 compared to 2008, Petrandis said. And while some other businesses might enjoy the lack of competition, she said there is no comfort in watching other coastal restaurants go out of business.
“That’s scary,” Petrandis said. “The more businesses that close around here, the worse it looks. It looks deserted. We want more businesses open so that more people come.”
Charlie and Angie Thompson of Carrabelle recently were watching a rainy, gray evening settle over Ochlockonee Bay when their platters of fried fish and shrimp were placed in front of them, nearly covering the table. Carrabelle, about 20 miles to the west in Franklin County, no longer has much in the way of seafood since Julia Mae’s closed a few years ago, the couple said.
“We were on the way back from shopping (in Tallahassee) and wanted to get some good seafood,” Charlie Thompson said. “And they have good seafood here.”
“I think most Carrabelle people come here — to eat seafood anyway,” Angie Thompson said. “It’s not that far.”
Wakulla County Chamber of Commerce President Paul Johnson said Angelo & Son’s, like the Spring Creek Restaurant in Wakulla County, provides an important connection between visitors and the Gulf of Mexico. People can enjoy a sustainable harvest of fresh Gulf seafood while also helping the local economy.
“It would be real unfortunate for Wakulla County” to lose Angelo’s, Johnson said. “I don’t think we have anything that would replace that type of restaurant.”
Jennifer Petrandis said she doesn’t think her family will have to contemplate the unthinkable — getting out of the restaurant business. She said she is noticing the beginning of an economic turnaround, with companies that canceled holiday parties in 2008 holding them again in late 2009.
“You can tell businesses still aren’t spending like they used to,” she said. “In prior years, people would always do appetizers and drinks and really splurge on their employees. We are picking up more Christmas parties, but they are still just doing a limited menu, with no drinks and no appetizers.”
And Angelo & Son’s, too, knows what it’s like to cut back in response to the economy, she said.
The restaurant once employed more than 100 cooks, waiters and waitresses, bartenders and bus staff, Petrandis said. But now the entire work force has been reduced to about 40, and nearly everyone is doing more than one job.
“Hostesses can tend bar,” she said, and everyone can clean tables.
“Definitely we’ve leaned down as much as we can lean down.”
Previously, Angelo’s sold only seafood that it caught from its boats, with most entrees and specialties costing more than $20 each. But now the restaurant offers an “Under $20” menu that includes catfish, mahi-mahi — purchased from a wholesale supplier — and popcorn shrimp, caught locally.
The business has avoided the overhead cost of purchasing seafood because family members Angelo and Thomas Petrandis catch most of what is served in the restaurant. The family, Jennifer Petrandis said, wouldn’t consider replacing fresh, local seafood with imported products.
Angelo & Son’s, which previously relied only on three billboards and word-of-mouth to get its name out, now advertises more in Tallahassee. Petrandis said she and her husband also spend more time poring over invoices to make sure they’re getting the best deals for produce and other supplies.
“When the economy comes back, we’ve learned how to manage money much better,” she said.
ECONOMIC SURVIVOR By Bruce Ritchie
David Vann doesn’t cook or work as a bartender or server — though he is one of the more recognized faces at Angelo & Son’s Seafood Restaurant on Ochlockonee Bay in Wakulla County.
And while he doesn’t even work for the restaurant, Vann has certainly felt the economy’s pinch on Angelo & Son’s and tourism along the Big Bend coast.
Calling himself “The Jewelry Man,” the 57-year-old Vann operates a small jewelry store within Angelo & Son’s. He says business is down nearly 40 percent from a year ago — almost as bad as when damage from Hurricane Dennis closed the restaurant for two years starting in 2005.
“It’s been real tough,” Vann said. “It’s almost like going through something worse than Hurricane Dennis all over again.”
But Vann, who sports blue jeans and casual shirts as he greets visitors entering the restaurant, says he expects to stay open by adapting to what his customers want — and can afford. He now sells more silver and costume jewelry than ever before and less gold, because of its high price.
Vann, who began his career in the jewelry business at Angelo’s in 1989, also has reduced his number of employees from four to one. He said his business peaked in 2004 and 2005, right before Dennis hit.
But Vann says he’ll survive the current economic downturn.
Some of the children who visited the restaurant with their parents years ago and bought shark-tooth necklaces from him now return to buy gold and silver. And they often seek him out personally.
“What I try to do in my business is give more personalized service than ever before,” Vann said. “Give the customer a little bit more extra — more than they expect.
“When I am working with them, I give them my undivided attention,” he said. “They are the lifeblood of my company. Without the customer, there is no reason to open my doors.”