By PAMELA CODY
Special to the PRESS
January 29, 2015
In October of 2013, the PRESS reported on the number of area restaurants on South Padre Island that had gone out of business, both in the previous year and over the last decade. That downward trend has continued, with more area restaurants closing their doors in 2014 and others struggling to stay afloat.
Adding to the list, over the past year, South Padre Island has witnessed the demise of Nami, the Taco Factory, Scampi’s, Chef’s Mexican Food and Big Boys, though the latter is scheduled to re-open as a seafood restaurant in the same location and by the same owner. That restaurant —another enterprise from local restaurateur Al Salazar— will be called the Crab House on Sheepshead. However, Big Boys closed in October of 2014 and the space has been empty since then.
The more serious underlying issue is the lack of new tenants taking the place of failed ones. The closed sites mentioned in the PRESS — Blanca White’s, Amberjacks, Zeste, the Mutt Hutt and Tejas Brew Pub — still sit unoccupied, with some already in their second and third year of vacancy. Driving down Padre Boulevard today, empty, unattended buildings with for sale/lease signs have increased. The bayfront entertainment district is the most visible example. The appeal of the popular area lessened by large, empty waterfront properties sitting vacant. Waterfront locations such as these typically have successful restaurants, taking advantage of the panoramic ocean views and close proximity to Island entertainment venues like Louie’s, Laguna Bob and Tequila Sunset to help keep their businesses prospering. To date, not one new business has opened in any of those prime waterfront locations.
Other area businesses are feeling the pinch, with relatively new restaurants like Yalla Habibi and U-Mix struggling to keep their doors open. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Javier Martinez, U-Mix employee, volunteered a comment on declining sales. “Yeah, it’s been really slow. The only customers I’ve had this afternoon didn’t come in until 4:15.” He did note, though, that business has picked up recently with the arrival of the Winter Texans.
Odetth Melham, one of the owners of Yalla Habibi, a family-owned and operated Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurant that opened on South Padre Island in May of 2013, talked about their restaurant and its future. Odetth Melham manages the place along with her brother Carlos. Odetth said, “At the opening we had a great start! But we have encountered that SPI is very seasonal; this past year business has not been the same. Customers had told us it’s a great place and the food is very tasty and authentic. However, we do not have any local customers – very few this past year kept coming back, it’s only tourists that visit the Island that have travelled the world and tried this type of food.”
Like many restaurant owners working hard to stay in business, Odetth said that they go by the season and these are the challenges they’ve faced. She finished by saying that they don’t know what this year will be like, and have no expectations. “SPI is unpredictable and we just hope to continue in business and attract more local people and visitors. We can only give our best that we have to offer, our food is authentic! We just have to wait and see.”
Dan Stanton is one of the current owners of Louie’s Back Yard, having taken it over on Jan. 1, 1998. He spoke briefly about Louie’s continuing to be one of the most popular, long-running restaurants on the Island. Stanton mentioned two factors as the keys to Louie’s success. “It’s being consistent and having an awesome staff,” he said. Asked why he thinks so many restaurants fail on South Padre Island, he said, “The Isla is changing, not always for the good of the business community. It’s a very difficult business environment.”
When asked what factors are contributing to so many closures and unoccupied buildings, Darla Lapeyre, executive director of the SPI Economic Development Corporation (EDC) provided a statement. “SPI’s seasonality provides unique challenges for our economy and the business community. The EDC works with businesses to help them succeed through various programs that include the Kauffman Fasttrac entrepreneurship training, a USDA loan program, and other resources on the EDC website. (www.southpadreislandedc.com ) In addition, the Chamber offers numerous training classes partnering with UTPA and that can increase the rate of success for businesses.”
She concluded by saying, “The future for the Island is bright with exciting developments that will provide year round residents and visitors to our area such as the UT-RGV Medical School, SpaceX, second causeway, the new TIRZ approved by Cameron County, and the Convention Center renovations.”
According to Jose Gavino, Program Director of the Entrepreneurship & Commercialization Center at UT Brownsville and one of the people in charge of the Kauffman Fasttrac program, numerous Island businesses have indeed applied and taken advantage of the program, including Tom & Jerry’s Restaurant, Hartwell Talent and Production, and Ginny Ossana of Jake’s Flowers.
For information about any of these programs, classes or training, contact the EDC website, or call (956)761–6805.
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