| The Ledger
Despite the economic crisis caused by shutdowns following outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in Florida, things are looking up for new bars and restaurants in Lakeland. Owners say opening a business right now is about as risky as it was before COVID-19.
And for some, business is already booming.
Andy’s Frozen Custard, a dessert-only chain from Missouri, opened its Lakeland location on Sept. 9. At 2 p.m., cars stretched out onto South Florida Avenue, about a half-mile south of the Polk Parkway, customers itching for a taste fans say is smoother and richer than normal ice cream with a texture between hard-packed ice cream and soft serve.
The new location, operated by Andy’s franchisee Ranchers Custard Company, is the franchisee’s third Florida attempt and 13th store overall. Josh Alsip, one of the owners of Ranchers, said the Lakeland location has been one of the company’s best openings.
Store Manager Casey McNicol said business has been nonstop and mostly smooth sailing, despite having to open in the middle of a pandemic.
McNicol, who has been in the food business for 20 years, said there were some construction and setup delays that might have been coronavirus related, such as one of the custard machines arriving only the day before opening. But she said the experience was similar to other restaurants she’s opened over the years.
Alsip credits the ease to Andy’s drive-thru model.
“With this type of pandemic, it works for our business because people take their treat and they go,” Alsip said.
The Andy’s location in Lakeland has a drive-thru and a patio with a walk-up window. McNicol said standing tables were originally ordered for the patio but came in damaged, so it sits empty. There are a few benches in front of the store where customers can sit, eat and watch the custard being made hourly by machines inside the store.
But McNicol said each walk-up customer is asked whether they want their order bagged to encourage social distancing. Most customers have chosen the drive-thru, often pulling into the parking lot to quickly eat their treats, which melt faster than normal ice cream.
But the mask policy is harder to enforce.
Lakeland is under a mask mandate set to expire Monday. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Sept. 25 that Florida municipalities could no longer collect fines on individual mandate violations. His office later clarified that the latest executive order does not prohibit local governments from establishing mandates or collecting fines from businesses.
Mayor Bill Mutz, however, said Tuesday that the rule puts businesses in “a very awkward position” and that the city would not renew the mandate.
Businesses seem less willing to enforce a toothless policy even if they continue to advertise the requirement. McNicol said that while they have signs at the walk-up and drive-thru stating the mask policy, most people in the drive-thru aren’t following it.
“We kind of steer clear from asking them to because we know that it can be a pressure point for people, they get upset about it. And there were stories in the news about people, you know, becoming violent or becoming aggressive,” McNicol said. “I don’t want my employees to be at risk for anything, so we don’t really push it too hard.”
Part of the excitement surrounding Andy’s comes from its Lakeland loyalists who moved from parts of the country sporting several eateries.
Lakeland resident Adrienne Garvey met her husband while attending Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. She loved going to Andy’s with her friends and has been to the Lakeland location three times since it opened.
“I think some of it is nostalgia, for me. It reminds me of my college days, which I loved,” Garvey, who is a big fan of the key lime concrete, said. “It brings me great memories.”
Garvey went to the Lakeland location’s opening day, parked in a separate parking lot and walked over, anticipating the traffic that spilled onto the street. But she said she’s been impressed by the employees’ speed and it’s well worth the wait for her treat.
Though they don’t benefit from Andy’s name recognition, new small businesses are pushing to start serving Lakeland despite construction and opening delays.
Rec Room, an arcade bar downtown, is already in its soft opening phase and will open officially Oct. 22. The opening, originally planned for spring, was delayed by COVID-19 measures that closed bars without food licenses, said co-owner Barrett Hollis.
“We were in the construction phase, so I would say we fared a little bit better than a lot of the bars that just had to shut down, period,” Hollis said.
Rec Room, sandwiched between Munn Park and Lake Mirror at Cedar Street and Massachusetts Avenue, features traditional arcade games and modern game consoles.
While restaurants and bars can now open at full capacity and seem eager to do so, Rec Room was prepared to open at 50% capacity.
“Our max capacity is 200 people, so 50%, we’re 100 people inside. That’s more than enough for us. That’s fine,” Hollis said before DeSantis’ executive order had been announced. “At this point, we just need to start generating income.”
Although there’s already an arcade bar in Lakeland, Galaxy Bar, Hollis said he doesn’t see it as competition. Galaxy Bar is more of a “nostalgia bar,” for one, and it’s on the north side of town, in North Towne Square near Lake Gibson. But Hollis also hopes arcade bars eventually become less “niche.”
As for masks, Hollis said they’re in a tight spot without a way to enforce the policy. He said that a lot of the bar is already sectioned off and good for groups and that it’s hard to get “young kids” to socially distance.
But upcoming bar and restaurant, HomeCourt, decided to simply not take the risk.
The fully constructed restaurant, owned by NBA Hall-of-Famer and Auburndale native Tracy McGrady, will not open its doors to the public until at least February 2021.
Hanson Li, McGrady’s partner in the endeavor who has opened multiple restaurants through Salt Partners, said he and McGrady wanted to play it safe with COVID-19. He said the health and safety risks to the employees and customers gave them pause, as did the since-expired capacity restrictions that would have limited the opening.
“You only have one chance to make a first impression,” Li said.
The restaurant sits in the Merchant’s Walk shopping center just north of the Polk Parkway.
Li said McGrady wanted to invest in his community in a “sustainable” way by creating jobs through HomeCourt. He added that if the Lakeland location does well, more might be opened in Polk County and Central Florida.
“[McGrady] did not set out to do this to be like the Michael Jordan Steak House because he wants his name on the marquee,” Li said. “He wants to do this to invest in the community and to create jobs.”
McGrady could not be reached for comment.
McGrady’s name is sure to bring buzz next year regardless, especially as there may be chances to watch games with the seven-time NBA All-Star virtually or in person at HomeCourt, Li said.
A simulator in the back of the restaurant will allow guests to play virtual golf and other sports. That sets up HomeCourt to compete with another new spot, The Back Nine.
The Back Nine, owned by married elementary school teachers Ethan and Jenna Smith, will bring “indoor Top Golf” to North Lakeland. There will be three full-swing golf simulators that also host other sports, such as baseball, football and zombie dodgeball, as well as a restaurant and a bar serving beer and wine.
The couple have been exploring the concept since 2015 and aim to open Oct. 23. The bar is located far on the north side of town on U.S. 98, across from Duff Road.
While COVID-19 caused some manufacturing and paperwork delays, Ethan said they faced far more challenges from the bank than the virus. And the couple are grateful they didn’t open last year, as expected, as early closures would have been devastating.
“This is hands down the scariest thing either one of us have ever done,” Ethan said. “We’re teachers, we’re not millionaires. We don’t have money just saved in the bank that we can do whatever we want [with].”
No decision has been made on whether a mask is required for your virtual golf course visit, but Ethan said they’ll likely follow the lead of other local businesses.
And as for why they feel Lakeland needs The Back Nine?
“What else is there to do?” Jenna said. “You go to Tampa to do things or you go to Orlando to do things.”
This is the first of a weekly column on Polk County business updates by Maya Lora, The Ledger’s new growth and development reporter. Lora can best be reached with tips or questions at [email protected] or 863-802-7558.