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Latest try to revive landmark Patio Restaurant fails

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of November 7, 2013)

After a year of trying to revive a Vero landmark restaurant, Leanne Kelleher has shuttered The Patio, one of three restaurants built 70 years ago by Waldo Sexton.

Kelleher, chef-owner of the island’s Tides restaurant, ventured to the mainland to take over the more casual Patio’s five dining rooms and bar, once the centerpiece of Vero’s downtown. With high hopes and considerable nostalgia, the re-opening last fall was seen as a Hail Mary pass for the Patio. Hers was the fourth effort in five years to keep the place open.

Chief among the Patio’s challenges was its size. At 250 seats plus another 50 in the bar area, the Patio is even bigger than the Ocean Grill, with 250 seats including the bar.

“There’s no single operator that has a restaurant that big,” says Kelleher, who says the Patio’s utility bill alone was between $5,000 and $6,000 a month.

“I had to fill those seats twice for seven days to be able to pay the costs for a restaurant that big.  I had to split the local crowd with Carrabba’s and Chili’s. You can’t match the chains’ giant buying power.”

When the Patio first opened last August, people waited an hour for a meal of homey foods including staples of the original Patio like the onion rings and Swiss cheese salad dressing.

Rancher Sean Sexton, grandson of Waldo, said soon after the Patio reopened under Kelleher, the steak he had was the best he’d had in his life. “She cared about the food. It’s her art, and she practiced it well,” he says. “Everything I had there was good. It had the stamp of her oversight.”

It stayed packed for six months, with people parking as far away as the car wash and Tire Kingdom. “At one point, I probably had 50 people working there.”

Then, as season ended, things began to flag.

When she tried resurrecting the old Patio’s famous Sunday brunch, she hung a banner out Saturday night to advertise. City officials made her take it down. “I thought people would be more supportive,” she says.

Even a $15 early-bird special couldn’t draw in enough patrons. “The question wasn’t managing the money that comes in the door; it was getting the money to come in the door.” 

In the end, Kelleher felt her ties to the Tides were more important, and she could no longer be present nightly to oversee operations at the Patio. “I just chose the Tides to be my focus of attention. It’s an easy decision. I’d choose the Tides in a minute. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, to own a restaurant like this.”

Meanwhile, the Sextons are heartbroken, particularly the patriarch, Ralph Sexton. Now 86, he came every Tuesday for lunch, Kelleher says. She visited him in person to break the news. He took it hard. “He loves the place,” Kelleher says. “He longs for the way it used to be.”

Sexton said the season was just picking up again. “Honest to God, she stopped too damn soon,” he says. “It just tears my heart out to think I won’t go there again.”

But Kelleher said the first six months of going gangbusters was normal for any new restaurant and not an indication of future viability.   Kelleher felt it would take another year to get the Patio profitable.

Sexton clings to hope there will be another tenant, hoping to open the doors again as soon as possible; the rent, Kelleher says, was always reasonable. She had a two-year lease, but the Sextons released her from it early. “They were always easy to work with,” she says.

But finding someone to fill Kelleher’s shoes may prove daunting. “She was a pro and she damn sure knows what she’s doing,” says Sexton. “Maybe the answer is the franchise solution. I hate to depart from the idea of independent proprietorships but maybe there needs to be that benefit of advertising and safety in size.”