Earlier this spring, FR&L Magazine Editor Susie McKinley had an opportunity to visit with the folks from Tropical Acres Steakhouse as the iconic restaurant recovers from a devastating 2011 fire. Jack Studiale and his sister, Carolyn, are the owners of Tropical Acres.
Jack, please tell FR&L readers about the history of Tropical Acres.
The Restaurant was opened 1949 by our mother’s cousin. He operated it successfully from 1949 to 1964. In 1964, the Restaurant experienced a fire and, he wasn’t going to rebuild. It was at that time that our father stepped in and got involved as a partner. My sister and I grew up in the “family business”.
Tropical Acres has been a destination for restaurant-goers for how many years?
Tropical Acres Steakhouse, owned and operated by the same family since 1949, has just celebrated its 63rd anniversary.
What is Tropical Acres’ business philosophy?
Our philosophy has always been to give the customer the most value for their dollar. We know we’ve given more food value, but value is a lot more than menu price. It is the way you are greeted and treated; it’s the quality of your dining experience; and it’s the little extra courtesies that make dining out a special occasion. Dining out is more than just a meal, and we’ve strived for years to make it a very pleasant experience for our guests. Serving the best food at sensible prices in a friendly, caring atmosphere is what we do best, and we believe this is what keeps our guests coming back.
Please describe your menu concept.
Steakhouse and Seafood Restaurant.
I understand that you are renovating after a recent fire. Please explain to readers the ups and downs of this situation.
The restaurant experienced a fire on August 31, 2011. There was substantial damage to the kitchen, bakery, laundry and storerooms, approximately 5,000 square feet. Most of the equipment was lost due to heat damage and / or water damage, and that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Many of us, staff and family members, grew up in the restaurant. Everyone was emotional about the damage the fire caused, but we all proceeded to assist with the clean-up. The loyalty and kindness of our staff, as well as that of the community and our customers, was the up side to this roller-coaster ride.
One of the most difficult things to deal with, for all of us, was waiting for things to begin on the renovation. No one had the sense of urgency that we had. Just after the fire, the insurance company roped off the area for twenty days. The company decided to take legal action against the manufacturer of the equipment that was believed to have started the fire. Then the engineers were called in: structural, mechanical and electrical. They were authorized and required by the insurance company. They took approximately five weeks to complete their reports. The work by the engineers had to be done to determine the integrity of the building and this had to be completed before re-build plans could begin. During this time, we (our staff and some outside contractors), aggressively cleaned, conducted demolition as needed, repaired what we could, and tried to eliminate the smoke odor and make some remodeling progress.
Re-build plans were well under way: roof, walls, electric, plumbing, wall and floor finishes, equipment selection and layout, sprinkler system, etc. We submitted plans around November 22, 2011. As usual there were some comments for revisions of our plans. We were finally permitted on December 22, 2011. Before that date, we purchased most of the material and equipment necessary to expedite the process. While we always look forward to the Holidays, this year they delayed our progress somewhat.
Real work began December 28th. Much of our staff was still on-site doing whatever was asked. Tommy, my Bartender, became quite the landscaper. Christie, our Hostess, cleaned, painted, sanded and asked for nothing. Sandy, our Head Server, was just a phone call away. Ginette set up an office and assisted many of the staff in collecting unemployment. Jackson, our Assistant Manager, set tile, and Monty helped the electrician. Bill dug trenches for the plumber; Francie was everywhere. Tina and Celia were helpful as well, cleaning and more cleaning. Jorge and Antoine worked every day doing whatever we needed, from spackling to painting to more cleaning, and Jean gave us his carpentry skills. Fifteen to twenty more folks assisted whenever necessary and wherever needed. I can go on and on.
As tragic as this event was, much good came from it. It enabled 60 individuals to become one. My son, Joe Studiale, and nephew, Michael Greenlaw, both managers, now have a new restaurant with 63 years of history. My sister and co-owner, Carolyn Greenlaw, and I can soon rest easier about the well-being of our extended family. Foremost, this nightmare has brought out the best in man; it has clarified real loyalty amongst our staff and friends.
As a side note, we held a staff meeting in late February 2012 to talk about the newly renovated restaurant, and we are happy to report that 61 of our 62 original employees have returned to Tropical Acres. The one employee who is not returning offered to assist when needed!
Did you feel like FRLA was there to support you during and after the fire?
FRLA, particularly Lynne Hernandez, was with us every step of the way. They offered to do a fundraiser for staff, and even offered to assist in finding temporary employment for them. It was great to know that FRLA was there if we needed them.
Have your employees been critical to the renovation?
The Staff have welcomed the renovation. They have had some great ideas. In the daily operation of the restaurant, we listen to them all of the time. They are a wealth information and feedback.
How do you keep your menu fresh and interesting to returning guests?
We keep the menu interesting with daily specials. Some of these may be added to the menu judged by their appeal to guests. Chefs have much input on our menu. We are very open to new food trends. It’s a balancing act between being everything to everyone and still having a controllable menu / food cost
What is your most popular dish?
Our most popular dish will have to be the Filet Mignon for its quality, flavor, price and presentation.
What is your most popular cocktail?
Our most popular would be the martini, although Tommy, our Bartender / Landscaper, is currently working on some new cocktails. We will wait and see what happens.
Have you seen the tastes of your guests change over the years?
We have not seen tastes change very much. We offer guests what they want i.e. great food, served by a professional staff, in a comfortable atmosphere and at a fair price. In a nutshell that is the equation.
Do you think your web page is beneficial to your business?
Yes. We strive to keep it updated. Like the restrooms, it is a reflection of the business.
What drives “traffic” to Tropical Acres most effectively?
Much of the traffic comes from locals, who are steady loyal and discerning. Our good relationships with nearby hotels bring in visitors, which are a great source of additional customers, but we need to keep in mind they may dine with us once or twice and then move on. The Internet has become a great way to acquire new patrons. I have always said. “Come in once, and if we do our job right, we have made a customer.”
Do you host a lot of special events or weddings?
Banquets and special events have become a big part of our business. Sizes range from 20 to 300 attendees. We host all kinds of events on and off premise. So much so that recently we found it necessary to have a Banquet Manager.
What is the most important thing you emphasize to staff about your customers?
Treat your customer the way you want to be treated when you are out. Establish a great rapport or some connection, if THEY are so inclined. Anticipate their needs. Make them your “call party.”
What do you think is critical to your employee training?
Give employees all of the information they need to do their job. Do not assume they know it.
How do you reduce employee turnover?
Remember, everyone is equal, YES, everyone is equal just with different job descriptions. That goes from owner to busboy. Be fair to all and respect each member of your staff; they (most) will respond the same way.
What is your tip to staying in business for such a long time?
Stay on the job. You cannot do it long-distance. You need to be there and feel the pulse of it. Your customers want to see and talk to you, as does your staff.
We’ve seen many changes and grown with the years. Our strong commitment to maintain quality and prices has enabled us to withstand the economic ups and downs faced by many restaurants in South Florida.