Ten years has elapsed since developer Chuck Prather bought the 1920-vintage Grayl’s Hotel for $1.8 million. He transformed the vacant Beach Drive wreck into the Birchwood, an 18-room boutique hotel with a swanky restaurant at ground level, and a rooftop bar with breathtaking views of downtown and the bay. The renovations came to more than $6 million.
It was Prather’s first run at the hospitality business. It would not be his last.
Last June, when the new St. Pete Pier opened to great (if somewhat pandemic-muted) fanfare, the public immediately began flocking to Pier Tiki, Teak Restaurant and the Driftwood Cafe, stacked on the three architecturally daring levels of the pier head, which sits 3,000 feet into the bay.
Prather, who owns and operates the three facilities, pays the city approximately $162,000 in annual rent.
That deal was in place long before the pier’s opening was delayed by the first wave of coronavirus. In those run-up months, Prather said, he was still paying the rent and was “cautiously optimistic” that it would all work out. But there were challenges.
“It was a tremendous amount of work to get that project completed,” he said. “There were just a lot of things with a building that is so complicated, out over the water. We got through all the construction, but then what do you do to make a safe environment for the guests as well as the employees?”
Driftwood (coffee, snacks and ice cream), Teak (a sit-down restaurant) and Pier Tiki (an open-air lounge high over the bay) have all been performing to expectations, Prather explained.
“You do have to go out to the pier head to get there,” he said. “Inclement weather certainly has an impact. If it’s a cold, rainy day our business is going to be not what it might have been had it not been a cold, rainy day. But we’re not complaining. We’re doing very well.”
Still, certain challenges remain. “I’ve always owned my own properties; I’ve never rented before,” Prather went on. “So I’ve kind of made the rules. Now, we have to follow the city’s rules, and the property manager’s rules. And it’s not easy, because you don’t necessarily get to dictate when every delivery comes. But they are insistent, and rightly so because it’s a safety concern with all the people walking around. They want deliveries early in the mornings only.
“We have a couple golf carts for emergencies; if we run out of ice cream or a keg of beer, we could go figure out how to get it and put it on the back of the golf cart and get it out there.
“But for the most part, almost without exception, all deliveries and repair trucks, et cetera need to come in the middle of the night through early in the morning. So that we’re not inconveniencing any pier guests.”
Early on, Prather made his name putting up buildings for the federal government, and leasing them back. “As long as I ran a clean, efficient building and kept it maintained, that was the job,” he recalled. “I had one employee for 20-something years; now I have maybe 400 employees.”
He’s loving the change in job description. “It’s been thrilling. There’s certainly high energy to this. It takes a lot of time, but it’s very satisfying.”
Although pier business has been good, Prather admitted that Teak, the full-service restaurant, might have a minor image problem. Despite its floor-to-ceiling windows and elegant interior, it’s not a super-expensive night out.
“At the Birchwood, it might not be affordable for everyday dining, or go-there-once-a-week,” he explained. “But at Teak, we tried very hard to make the price point out there to where it’s affordable. I’d say our average ticket is about $18 per person.
“It’s a beautiful restaurant and we spent a lot of money on furniture, lights and equipment. But we said to the mayor when we made our bid presentation, and we stuck to that all the way through, we are not going to have an expensive restaurant there. It’s got to be approachable so that most folks can afford to dine out there.”
The restaurant’s capacity, with tables spaced for proper social distancing, is 220.
One level up, Pier Tiki is supremely casual, with bay breezes blowing through from one side to the other. Capacity in the open-air lounge is 450 per occupancy codes; currently, it’s being limited to half of that. Security guards (which were not in the original budget) have been hired to make sure the count doesn’t go higher.
“St. Petersburg,” Prather stated, “is a beautiful tourist destination, and folks are still coming. We just need to keep them safe, especially now as we hopefully come to a conclusion of this pandemic. We’re more determined than ever to maintain this occupancy load. Once the pandemic gets behind us, and we all have taken the vaccine, we can all gather again and take it up to full capacity.
“It’s the standing room at the bars where you get a little nervous, where people are just shoulder-to-shoulder. We are doing our best to not do that until we can get past the pandemic.”
There exists, Prather said, some confusion as to which facility is which, what they serve and what their specialties are. There is a conspicuous lack of signage at the pier head.
That’s the way his landlord, the City of St. Petersburg, wants it.
“They are very protective, and I understand why. Early in my career, I worked with a developer who just built shopping centers. So I understand how if you don’t guard signage policies closely, your tenants will get away with murder. So I’m very empathetic to the city’s plight.
“And they also have such world-class architecture. They don’t want a bunch of signs hanging off that beautiful building, saying ‘Ice Cream Store’ with an arrow or something I get it. I’m not upset about it.”
At Driftwood, the ice cream is hand-crafted, every spoonful, back at the Birchwood’s fourth-floor kitchen. Prather is very proud of his ice cream.
“Could we do more business if we had signs? Sure, but it’s just the way it is,” he said. “We did try to do some poster kind of signs, but the city asked us politely to take them down. I’m OK with that because I understand they need to maintain the integrity of that beautiful building.”
As for that ice cream: “We make them fresh every day. It seems like we never turn those ice cream machines off. It’s fun: ‘Let’s try a brownie peppermint,’ or whatever. You’re always trying new flavors – something with pumpkin in the fall, and at Christmastime with egg nogs – whatever you can think of, whatever you can dream of, throw it in there. ‘Apple pie? Let’s see if we can make some apple pie ice cream.’ Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t when we taste it. If it doesn’t, we throw that batch away and try something else. So far, we’ve been very pleased with the customer response.”
All of which certainly trumps constructing buildings for the government, and collecting rent checks.
“My family loved me during the initial tastes,” Prather enthused. “I would come home with about 50 Solo cups of ice cream in multiple coolers. They were forced – in quotes – to taste each one. It was usually a blind tasting; we’d have five or six of each flavor. I’d just keep bring out Dixie cup after Dixie cup until they said ‘No more.’
“So yeah, that was a tough part of my day.”