Stand at the eastern edge of the Canopy, the Birchwood Hotel’s rooftop bar, and you can observe the slow-but-steady construction of the new St. Pete Pier.
Birchwood owner Chuck Prather, whose business acumen is famously finely-tuned, took in that panoramic view and had an epiphany about getting in on the action, and putting a 21st century restaurant, café and scenic bar out there.
“I’ve always been a pier fan, but I was not in the camp that thought it should be saved,” Prather says. “Its time had run; it reeked of 1960s and 1970s. Like the argument said, it needed new bones.”
The Florida-born developer, who spent his formative years across the bay but has lived in St. Pete (his wife’s hometown) since 1991, didn’t submit a proposal until the current pier design – last in a line of several that were considered – was green-lit. At first, he didn’t think he had a chance.
But last month, the St. Petersburg City Council approved Prather’s lease for Teak (the restaurant), Pier Teaki (a rooftop bar) and Driftwood (the café) to occupy the pier head’s three levels.
The powers that be liked the designs from Prather’s Teak LLC team. The bar will feature exotic, tiki-style drinks, the street-level café juices, fruit, yogurt and other healthy foods for runners and walkers, and the restaurant – on the top level – a Florida-themed menu with a spotlight on locally-sourced seafood.
“I didn’t want something boring out there,” he says. “I wanted it to be part of the current trends for bars. I wanted it to be tourist-friendly for a restaurant. I wanted it to have a price point for people to afford.”
Target opening date for Prather’s new creations, along with the rest of the $76 million pier, is Labor Day 2019.
It’s the second giant leap in the hospitality business for the 57-year-old president of Birchwood Development, who made his career putting up buildings-on-order for the federal government.
Eight years ago, he paid $1.8 million in a foreclosure auction for the five-story Grayl’s Hotel, which had been squatting on Beach Drive since the early 1920s. “It was just sitting there,” Prather says. “It was the – let’s be kind – least favorite establishment on Beach Drive.”
Prather had done business in other parts of the state – and around the country. But never in St. Pete. He saw decrepit old Grayl’s, however, as a business opportunity too good to pass up.
“I was grateful that St. Pete was coming alive – even though this was at the end of the recession – but the beautiful condo towers that had gone up dominated Beach Drive. So you were certainly not going to be able to buy any of that retail. Just looking up and down the row, that was really just one building that stuck out to me.”
He applied for, and received, an historical designation for the structure, which allowed him a city tax credit for the next decade.
“I thought ‘St. Petersburg does not need another stucco tower here. It needs to keep some charm.’ I really felt firmly about that. It was such beautiful, classic Southern architecture of the boom times of St. Pete.”
More than $6 million in renovations later, the Birchwood opened in the spring of 2013.
Today the Canopy, with its sweeping vistas of downtown and the bay, is a destination for Millennials – and just about everyone else – at sunset and beyond.
There are 18 posh rooms in the boutique hotel, and the swanky ground-floor restaurant – the 250-seat Birch & Vine – is a cornerstone of the busy Beach Drive experience.
For a developer whose previous work had consisted of precious few real interactions with the public, hospitality, Prather says, has “sex appeal. If you build a government building, it’s thrilling – you go from finding a site to designing the building to ultimately turning the keys over to the tenant – and then the excitement is done. Then you just operate your building, which is very mundane.
“When you do that with a restaurant or a hotel – or in my case, both – that’s just the very beginning. With hospitality, you get to share the beauty of the property with the public.”
Prather revels in the stories he hears on a daily basis – customers who got engaged on the rooftop, who are celebrating their anniversary in the restaurant or staying at the hotel as part of their first St. Pete visit. Making memories.
“We don’t get much of that in federal government,” he laughs. “You can’t normally take pictures inside there anyway.”
Five years running the Birchwood have taught him a lot, he explains, about customers and their expectations. “I’ve been educated, certainly, trying to fine-tune customer service in these challenging times of social media. Sometimes that can be a Herculean effort on me and my teams’ part.”
In other words, instant social media “reviews” don’t give the proprietor the chance to respond in a similarly timely way.
Prather recently became president of the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association. “I’m surrounded by people that’ve made a career out of this, whether it’s in restaurants or hotels,” he says. “And when you group those people together, and we share experiences, I realize I’m not alone. We all have the same issues, whether it’s guest experiences, or trying to find staff to run your property.”
While he still does government work, hospitality is Chuck Prather’s middle name these days. “I go to Tallahassee and lobby for the industry,’ he says. “I go to Washington, D.C. and lobby for the industry. I go to work every morning and lobby for customers, to make sure they get the great customer experience.
“And I meet with the team. And they get it, they’re drinking the Kool-Aid.
“So with that team that I have in place right now, I have great confidence that we’ll open up a new place. When we have Driftwood Café, Pier Teaki and Teak open, and we get our legs back underneath us, will we try it again? If the opportunity’s there, I would love to.”