Waiter Thom Vloat serves customers at Mayster's Cafe in St. Petersburg, FL on Saturday. LUKE JOHNSON/STAFF
BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT Tribune staff
Published: June 22, 2013
Updated: June 22, 2013 at 06:12 PM
ST. PETERSBURG - Tony Panella eats at the Sunset Grille more than he eats at home.
About four or five nights a week, he stops in for wings and a Bud Light and catches up with other regulars who also call this neighborhood spot in the MLK Business District a second home.
"This is like my Cheers; everybody knows everybody," said Panella.
"It's got a laid back, cool atmosphere."
While it's gone through different owners and changed its name, this restaurant on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 30th Avenue North has been an ongoing hangout for beer and bar food since the 1920s.
Despite the expansion of suburbs, shopping malls and chain restaurants, locally-owned restaurants like this one have endured by offering good food and prices and convenient access to nearby residents.
Their future looks promising, too, with recent studies showing car travel going down nationwide and young professionals giving preference to walkable neighborhoods that are close to shopping.
But in St. Petersburg, where a new locally-owned bar and restaurant seems to open every other week, businesses catering to their neighbors must work hard to remind customers they're getting something that can't be replaced by the newest downtown pub or waterfront café - a relationship.
"As far as the local people that are loyal to us, it's really just my girls; they're friendly, they talk to everybody, they get to know everybody," Sunset Grille owner Sharon White said.
Before Sunset Grille, it was Miller's Grill with regular meals for 35 cents as well as steaks, pork chops and seafood, according to an old advertisement.
In the heyday of commercial districts on main thoroughfares like Fourth Street and Central Avenue, most potential customers lived only a short distance away and getting their loyalty was just a matter of offering good food and service.
Many of these old districts emptied out when many middle- and upper-class residents left for the suburbs and their loyalty to neighborhood shops was challenged by chains with big marketing budgets, said Todd Barman, senior program officer at the National Trust Main Street Center.
That trend is reversing now with neighborhoods along old commercial corridors like Central Avenue coming back into vogue and shops, bars and restaurants opening up to get their patronage.
The sales pitch for these new neighborhood restaurants isn't as simple as it used to be, though, Barman said.
"Businesses can't just rely on location anymore. They need to make clear what the choice is," he said.
That choice is about knowing the person who made your eggs Benedict, says Gary Mayfield, co-owner of Mayster's Café at 2444 Central Avenue.
Mayfield and co-owner Christine Sterling rely almost entirely on local traffic from the hundreds of homes in the adjacent Kenwood and Palmetto Park neighborhoods, and workers in the Grand Central District.
"We have a relationship with our regulars," said Mayfield.
"I always make it a point, regardless of how busy we are, to come out personally and check on them at their table."
On Saturday morning, Mayfield welcomed five members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, who hold their three-hour monthly meetings here.
Kurt Donley, the association's president and a Grand Central resident, said he eats 85 percent of his meals at places in his neighborhood.
"If you want your neighborhood to stay strong, you need to keep your money in the neighborhood. It's as simple as that," Donley said.
Before Mayster's, the space had gone through a revolving door of businesses ranging from a cupcake bakery to an Italian restaurant, he said.
The Grand Central District and the Kenwood Neighborhood Association actively promote neighborhood restaurants like Mayster's through monthly newsletters, social media and special events.
The goal is both is to keep residents spending locally but also to market the district as a destination to outsiders, Grand Central District Manager Lauren Ruiz said.
For neighborhood spots that aren't in a major shopping district, good word of mouth appears to be the best marketing.
Matt and Tammy Zybura sat outside the Banyan Café Saturday morning as a line of people snaked out the door of the tiny breakfast spot on Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Seventh Avenue North.
A neighbor in their Old Northeast neighborhood recommended Banyan when the couple moved here three years ago from California. Now they come twice a week.
"They are so cool and friendly and they just have this really good vibe about them that's loving," said Tammy Zybura.
The excellent grits bowl and breakfast burrito are also important factors, they say.
Convenience also will become increasingly important for neighborhood businesses in coming years.
People between 16 and 34 years old drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001 and overall driving has declined nationally during the past eight years, according to a report released last month by the consumer advocacy group U.S. Public Research Interest Group.
The so-called Millenial generation also is inclined to live in urban, walkable areas close to businesses, which is a good thing for bars like JWags at 2312 Fourth Street North, where there's scant parking.
"You live right around the neighborhood; you can come down here and walk home," said Nathan Gunther, who lives a few blocks from the bar near Crescent Lake.
"You're safe, you're not in the car, you're not driving, or you can call a cab."
Bar manager Adrienne Arceneaux says her bar isn't looking to compete with the downtown scene. Its customers are the servers at the Melting Pot across the street who come by after work or loyal residents like Gunther.
"Who wants to go and get all dressed up and drive down there and get an $8 Ketel [One vodka] when they can drive across the street, have a couple drinks and be on their way?" she said.
Panella, the loyal Sunset Grille patron, says he is willing to make a 10-minute drive to his favorite hangout, even though he lives only a block away from a Wing House chain restaurant on Fourth Street North.