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Retail Risk Takers

By Jennie McKeon

Independent News recently celebrated our 12th Anniversary. To everyone’s chagrin, we’ve managed to survive hurricanes, a recession and an oil spill.

But we’re not the only ones. Pensacola’s business community has a host of businesses who have done the same. Starting a small business is a risk in and of itself. Starting a small business–and keeping it thriving–in an unpredictable financial climate is even riskier.

IN picked out some of our favorite local businesses that exemplify small business risk takers. They include bars, restaurants, fitness programs, retail shops, grocers and specialty stores. Some, like Running Wild and Apple Market, have become Pensacola staples. Others, like Fitness Onboard and Fixed on Fitness, have introduced national and global fitness trends to our area, and still others like Cactus Flower, The Wine Bar and Play offer one-of-a-kind dining and entertainment options. Defying the recession, businesses like Pizzaz have actually expanded–three times.

Whether they expanded during a recession, were the first of their kind in Pensacola, or just added a new twist to their current business plans to stay fresh and relevant to their customers, these businesses are all risk takers and innovators in their field, and the IN thought they deserved some recognition. So read up, and who knows, maybe you’ll get inspired to take some risks of your own (or at least visit a few of the places on our list soon).

APPLE MARKET
1021 Scenic Highway, 433-4381, applemarketpensacola.com
Sometimes it’s hard to own a business and still do right by your community. However, David Apple’s grocery store emphasizes local produce and other items even if it doesn’t result in a high profit margin.

“A lot of the things we sell are unique, and we are the only business in the area that sells it,” said owner David Apple as he greeted customers. “We see it not as a risk, but as a good for the community and for local businesses. It’s the only gambling I do.”

Apple has plenty of experience with grocery chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Safeway, so he knows how to separate the two and bring people into Apple Market with a delicious deli, catering service and take-out. “We have an arsenal of unique things that other businesses don’t do,” Apple said. “We have a great location and outstanding employees and customers.”

Since Apple bought the grocery store in May 1996, business has stayed consistent, even during the recession. That’s because Apple understands his customer. “People are more value and cost-conscious during the recession,” Apple said. “They want to find a way to make the dollar go further.”

CACTUS FLOWER CAFÉ
3425 N. 12th Ave., 432-8100; 3309 Gulf Beach Highway, 458-3833; 8725 Ortega Park Drive, Navarre, 936-4111;
cactusflowercafe.net
If you can believe it, Cactus Flower Cafe was not meant to be the sensation it is today. “My intention was just to have one great restaurant,” said owner Lee Kafeety. “It just naturally became what it is today.”

What Cactus Flower is today is a small chain of locally-owned locations that stay busy around the clock. “We stay very busy,” Kafeety said. “I feel very grateful and obligated to give back to the community.”

The restaurant offers one-of-a-kind California Mexican fare that goes beyond the standard greasy refried beans and cheese and bean burritos.

Cooking has always been a passion for Kafeety. “Being Hispanic, I have always loved feeding people,” Kafeety said. “My aunt is the best of the best. She would spend summers with me and we would cook and cook.”

Kafeety shares her success with business partner Joni Derome. Soon, more friends stepped in to open their own Cactus Flower restaurant, and now there are two locations in Pensacola and one in Navarre.

“I have the hardest working employees,” Kafeety said. “They make it comfortable for me to grow and expand.” Business plans for the future include another expansion of the original location on 12th Avenue and a bar.

DISTINCTIVE KITCHENS
29 S. Palafox Place, 438-4688, dk4u.com
Distinctive Kitchens has been a family business serving Florida and Alabama for over 80 years. Business partner and general manager Curtis Flower has been with the Distinctive Kitchens family for six years. During that time he has had to help turn the business around to suit the recession.

“Prior to the recession, 80 percent of appliance sales was to new homeowners,” Flower said. “We’ve had to adjust and adapt. Instead of selling a complete kitchen, we sell bits and pieces.”

Distinctive Kitchens has been able to survive through the decades because it is a business unlike any other. “We have a unique niche,” Flower said. “We fill a lot of niches whether it’s for the cook or the foodie. We sell appliances, culinary gadgets, we teach you how to cook, and we sell the wine that complements your food.”

Having a unique business is hard work, especially during a recession when people have to give up or spend less on their hobbies or pastimes. “It hasn’t been easy…at all,” Flower said. “It’s been a remarkable challenge and has allowed us to learn from the past and build a stronger future.” Lessons learned will ensure that Distinctive Kitchens will stick around for another 80 years and beyond.

“We’re here to stay and improve our niche in the marketplace,” Flower said.

EMERALD CITY
406 E. Wright St., 433-9491, emeraldcitypensacola.com
Any business undertaking can be tricky, but a gay dance club in the Bible Belt? That’s the ultimate risk. However, since its opening in May 1998, the club has stayed popular with both straight and gay customers. The only downfall the club has seen is that their customers just don’t spend as much as they did pre-recession.

Emerald City’s answer to fighting the economy is to have more fun. “We generally did one or two special events every month,” said manager Ted McCrary. “Since the recession, we try to do three events a month, sometimes every Saturday. It’s a lot more work for us generally, but it gets people in the club.”

Emerald City doesn’t have much competition in the way of gay dance clubs—or even just dance clubs, but it has presented a challenge. “It’s hard being in a town with no competition,” McCrary said. “You have to keep things fresh. We try our best to change things up with new and better parties and drink specials.”

Emerald City has survived worse financial lulls. When Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola, the club was closed for 10 months for renovations, and just like Emerald City’s sister club Oz in New Orleans, it has survived through disasters natural and man-made. Cue Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive.”

EVER’MAN NATURAL FOODS
315 W. Garden St., 438-0402, everman.org
Before “green” became an everyday buzz word, Ever’man Natural Foods was advocating for and educating the public about organic products, natural foods and healthy lifestyles.

Typically, organic food is the healthiest option, but it’s not always the cheapest. However, Ever’man has not lost membership, and sales continue to rise during this unstable economy.

There have been a few changes to help keep the co-op in business. Ever’man no longer charges a surcharge for non-members (a family membership is $12 a year and $5 for seniors 65 years and older), more specials and lower prices.

The marketing team has also taken a closer look at the power of advertising. “Our marketing department has restructured our marketing and advertising campaign and has put more focus on guerrilla advertising tactics and outreach programs,” said marketing director Jennifer Dutton in an e-mail interview. “We are also making greater use of social media to promote our products and events.”

Since Ever’man has been in business since 1973 it has faced hardship before and has always managed to come out on top. “During our 38 years, we have weathered many challenges and have grown thanks to our member and community support,” Dutton said. “Be it hurricanes, the oil spill, increased competition and now the recession, we have managed to sustain our co-op through it all.”

Ever’man is even planning to expand and improve product selection and is working with a larger selection of local vendors than before. And as always, they provide the largest selection of natural and organic products between New Orleans and Tallahassee.

FIORE
824 E. Belmont St., 469-1930, fioreofpensacola.com
Shannon Pallin, owner of Fiore, knows that her product is a want and not a need. “Although I think flowers are a necessity, when it comes down to it they’re not,” Pallin said in an e-mail interview. “I opened in February 2006, minutes before the market crashed, so I have never felt more gut-wrenching feelings in my life. It certainly has not been easy, and I have learned all of the things I should have learned in school the hard way. Regardless, I go to work every day, do the best that I can and know that I have made someone really happy with our product. That is a nice feeling.”

One look at her floral creations and you’ll see Pallin does more than arrange flowers—she creates art with a bold flair that is unique to her shop. Pallin has worked in the flower business for 25 years and has worked with big names such as Martha Stewart. She even opened her own flower shop in San Diego at the age of 21.

It is her drive that not only keeps her in business, but keeps her very busy. “Fiore’s plans for the future are optimistic in that our weddings have increased by 78 percent in the last year,” Pallin said.

“We hope to continue in the same direction offering brides a personal, inside look at the plans, preparations and the beautiful outcome of each wedding we do.”

FITNESS ONBOARD
Margaritaville Beach Hotel Pier, Little Sabine Bay, 165 Ft. Pickens Road, Pensacola Beach, 292-5608, fitnessonboard.com
Fitness Onboard began with a mere Facebook status update. “Courtney posted a status and a picture on Facebook about trying yoga poses on a paddle board,” said co-owner Cindi Bonner in an e-mail interview. “I noticed the post immediately and asked Courtney to remove the picture and discuss the idea.” Since that post in July 2010, Courtney Fell and Bonner have been open for business.

Today, Fitness Onboard offers classes seven days a week and employs 13 fitness instructors and three rental employees. Both Bonner and Fell have American Council of Exercise (ACE) certification and have trained all staff to teach classes and the proper technique of stand-up paddling.

To stay recession-proof they moved to the beach at the Margaritaville Hotel to get tourists as well as locals onboard. “Our beach is such a beautiful benefit of living along the Gulf Coast, and we would like to see more locals take advantage of it,” Bonner said.

FIXED ON FITNESS
607-6978, fixedonfitness.com
With Fixed on Fitness you get the attention and care of a personal trainer at a fraction of the cost. Established in 2007 by Kenzie and Josh Presnell, Fixed on Fitness is the only six-week outdoor fitness boot camp in Pensacola.

“We provide our clients with a comprehensive nutrition program that includes grocery lists, meal planners and weeks of sample meals,” said Kenzie Presnell. “Each client has access to a personal online tracker. In addition, we provide a camp manual with off-day workouts, fitness tips, injury prevention and other health-related information. In addition, each client has 24/7 access to a certified personal trainer for any additional information they may need.”

Of course, they had to think of the recession and plan to make the program accessible to everyone. “Keeping the tough economic times in mind we set up the pricing structure of our outdoor fitness boot camp to enable our clients to continue the program for as long as they wish,” she said. “In fact, our veteran campers pay less than $8.35 per class.”

Fixed on Fitness also offers flexible hours so that clients can work out around their work and social calendars. The business has grown in just a few years—it has served over 400 Pensacola residents, expanded to Jacksonville, and will soon be offered in Perdido beginning Monday, Aug. 29 at the Liberty Church.

GLOBAL GRILL
27 S. Palafox, 469-9966, dineglobalgrill.com
Husband and wife duo Frank and Jane Taylor opened the Global Grill eight years ago this November with no bank loan. Backed by their own money and help from family, the Taylors opened the restaurant while they had three kids to feed.

“We knew it was a huge undertaking,” said Taylor, who runs the front of the house while her husband Frank is the executive chef and runs the kitchen.

While the restaurant has stayed strong throughout the recession, one challenge was providing quality seafood during the oil spill. “We took a hit,” she said. “We never ever sacrificed taste. We still only buy fresh, not frozen.”

The restaurant began as a tapas bar, but throughout the years the menu has expanded to include salads, entrées and desserts made from scratch. “If you can’t find something you like here, you’re crazy,” Taylor said. “From Mediterranean to Asian to Cajun flavors, we have so much to choose from.”

And the atmosphere is the perfect mix of relaxed and upscale. White tablecloths with eclectic plates and beautiful artwork only add to the dining experience. “It’s a real social atmosphere,” Taylor said.

“This is a place where at one table someone will be celebrating their 21st birthday and at the next table someone will be celebrating their 95th.”

The Taylors think they made the right move when they decided to open Global Grill. “We’re so glad we did it,” Taylor said. “We feel very blessed to have people come in and enjoy the food. The restaurant has exceeded our expectations.”

GREAT SOUTHERN RESTAURANT GROUP
Fish House and Atlas Oyster House, 600 Barracks St., 470-0003, fishhouse.goodgrits.com
Jackson’s Steakhouse, 400 S. Palafox, 469-9898, jacksons.goodgrits.com
The Fish House, Atlas Oyster House and Jackson’s Steakhouse are all great restaurants on their own. Since they all belong under the same umbrella that makes the Great Southern Restaurant Group a triple threat in Pensacola. These restaurants aren’t just great places to eat, but each restaurant has its own signature event that turns fine dining into an experience, not just a meal.

In 2006, The Fish House introduced its outside bar called The Deck. “It’s become pretty popular,” said Collier Merrill, part owner of the Great Southern Restaurant Group. The business was started by brothers Collier, Will and Burney Merrill alongside Chef Jim Shirley in 1998. The Fish House was the first restaurant to start up, followed by Atlas Oyster House. In 2008, the Great Southern Restaurant Group bought the award-winning Jackson’s Steakhouse with original owners Chef Irv Miller and general manager Barry Phillips as operating partners.

All of the restaurants have their own loyal followers and fans who’ve continued to dine throughout the recession. “We’re very fortunate and appreciative to have loyal, local guests,” Merrill said.
“Guests always come first.”

One restaurant is hard enough to operate sometimes, and this business has three. “We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the hurricanes and the economy,” Merrill said. “But we’ve worked hard and we were able to keep people working. We’re going to continue to do our part to move Pensacola forward, help with tourism and improve the quality of Pensacola.”

HOPJACKS PIZZA KITCHEN & TAPROOM
10 S. Palafox, 497-6073, hopjacks.com
“Hopjacks was supposed to be a restaurant with a cool bar,” said Jarod Kelly, director of operations, in an e-mail interview. “After our first three months of operations we realized what we actually had was a bar with a really cool restaurant.”

Hopjacks opened on Feb. 13, 2008 and has a large and eclectic demographic. “From day one, our hours have been consistent and unique,” Kelly said. “We are open from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., and our kitchen never closes before 2 a.m. We have been very fortunate to appeal to almost every demographic and because of this it has been said that everyone from ‘ties to tattoos patronizes Hopjacks.”

The restaurant has been successful enough to not only stay busy during the recession, but it has been able to sustain a renovation as well as the opening of an additional restaurant in downtown Mobile, Ala. That success is due to the reasonable prices Hopjacks offers. “We have always had ‘recession proof’ options in $2 beers and $5 food options,” Kelly said.

Hopjacks isn’t just changing its interior. “We put out a new food menu two months ago and have had nothing but rave responses,” Kelly said. New 32 oz. growlers will be coming soon, which will allow the bar to sell to-go cups of draft beer from all 110 taps.

“Still,” you wonder, “What is a hopjack?

“Besides self-deprecation our favorite things in life formed what you see today,” Kelly said. “In all actuality, ‘hop’ (one of the main ingredients in beer) and ‘jack’ (cheese) is how the name came about. Ironically, we don’t even use Jack cheese, but hell, who cares? It sounds good.”

JACO’S BAYFRONT BAR AND GRILLE
997 S. Palafox, 432-5226, jacosbayfrontbarandgrille.com

Why start a restaurant during a major recession?

“Apparently, I don’t have any sense,” said owner David Hambrick.

It would seem that Hambrick quickly came to his senses, because he and his brother have opened a successful fine dining restaurant with a view. “Pensacola has been very supportive and consistent with patronage,” Hambrick said.

The sidewalk outside the restaurant was leased from the city to not only offer patrons a beautiful atmosphere, but it is also home to “Art Night on the Bayfront.” The free event is held on the last Wednesday every month and gives local artists a free venue to showcase their work.

And of course, every great restaurant should have great food—and Jaco’s does, courtesy of Chef Tricia Horton.

“We knew we wanted to have a light, easy-flowing menu,” Hambrick said. “We guinea-pigged a lot of Tricia’s creations on people.”

Price was also a major concern. “We blend quality and quantity in price and we have second-to-none service,” he said.

Hambrick has a formula for his success, and it’s called the 3 Ps. “Person, product, place,” he said. “We try to do all three things very well.”

LAGUNA’S BAR & GRILL
Portofino Boardwalk, 400 Quietwater Beach Road, Pensacola Beach, 934-5999
Pensacola Beach is finally building momentum after a deluge of environmental and economic hurdles, but the island’s business owners know that to stay in business on the beach you have to have a positive attitude.

“As a veteran of the hospitality industry, I’ve seen my share of economic ebbs and flows,” said Rob Babcock, general manager of Portofino Island and Premier Island Management, in an e-mail interview. “It’s important in any economic shift to stay true to the vision of providing a unique, quality experience focusing on excellent customer service and delivering a great product.”

Laguna’s offers the culinary skills of Chef Rob Theriot as well as a tequila bar featuring 60 unique tequilas and a Sunday Brunch. Weekly specials such as Thursday Ladies Night and Sunday Fun Day turn visitors into loyal customers.

Laguna’s and the rest of the beach restaurants have used this difficult time to better their product and make it worth their customers’ time. “We focus on delivering the best guest experience possible as well as enhancing the value we bring to the guest with each new venture,” Babcock said. “Laguna’s relaxed, casual dining atmosphere, with the beautiful Santa Rosa Sound on the Portofino Boardwalk as its backdrop, coupled with its unique twist on traditional Southern comfort food, is really like no other.”

THE LEISURE CLUB
126 S. Palafox, 912-4229, tlcdowntown.com
When owners Denise Berry and Kimberly Brill opened The Leisure Club in September 2010, they knew they needed to be wallet-friendly.

“When we opened our doors, we knew that we needed to offer a variety of specials and promotions to make our quality food, coffee, wine and craft beer selections available to everyone,” said Berry in an e-mail interview. “We created our Monday night ‘TGIM Special,’ which features a classic grilled cheese, tomato basil soup and a PBR, tea or soda for $5.”

There’s also a two-for-one special on house wines on Tuesday and Wine Down Wednesday, when every bottle of wine is half off.

In addition, the restaurant last month introduced their TLC VIP punch cards. After seven coffee drinks or smoothies you get one free.

If the specials don’t lure in new and loyal customers, the atmosphere surely will. The urban décor makes you feel like you’ve taken an unexpected detour from Palafox to New York City.

The Leisure Club features Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea because of the company’s commitment to supporting local farmers worldwide. And all customers are treated like VIP with or without a punch card. “The friendly service we provide each guest is an important part of our brand,” Berry said. “We remind our staff regularly that everyone is VIP at TLC.”

For your listening enjoyment, The Leisure Club will soon be expanding their live music lineup from three nights a week to nightly. “An important part of our vision is offering a space where local talent can spread their wings and share their gifts,” Berry said.

Also coming this summer is their “curbside service.” Call ahead with your order and they will bring it out to your car. Any downtown businesses need a pick-me-up? The Leisure Club delivers for downtown offices and special events to serve eight or more. Talk about VIP.

NANCY’S HAUTE AFFAIRS
555 Scenic Highway, 434-0112, nancyshauteaffairs.com
“I don’t think I’m a risk taker,” said Nancy Silivos. “I took big steps and did what I had to do.”

Once Nancy and Gus Silivos knew they had to close Skopelos in April 2009, they had a new business open immediately after to keep their employees working. “We had employees who have worked with us for 20 years,” she said. “We had to continue. We had to make it work.”

And so the couple opened Nancy’s Haute Affairs. “It’s a very unique shop,” she said. “Most people think it’s just a catering shop, but it’s so much more.”

However, the food does play a big part. “My husband Gus makes the food, and he is the best,” Silivos said. “I never have to worry about the quality of our food.”

But she does have other worries, like the budgets of weddings and other special events. Silivos and her team work hard at giving their clients everything they want within their means. “We are very cautious of the client’s bottom dollar,” Silivos said. “We try to make their event happen within their budget.”

Nancy and Gus Silivos have put their heart into this business, and with hard work it will continue to grow. “We will continue to grow and provide the same great service we’ve always provided,” Silivos said. “That’s what makes us different. It’s personal. It’s the key to our business—hard work and truly caring.”

THE OAR HOUSE
1000 S. Pace Blvd., 549-4444, the-oar-house.com
Fighting not only the recession and oil spill, but also a disastrous fire on Father’s Day in 2008, The Oar House has gone through some very big changes. “The fire was a challenge,” said manager Leo Cyr in an e-mail interview. “The owner, Ray Russenberger, gave clear direction to the staff while the fire was still being put out: get back in operation as soon as possible, build it back like it was and take care of the people.”

The Oar House moved its operations to a concession trailer and served patrons on their new deck under a tent while reconstruction of the building was underway. By the time the restaurant was rebuilt the economy had reached rock-bottom. The Oar House once again modified its menu to include more specials and economy-friendly meals.

The restaurant tried to increase customer traffic by adding special unique touches. One was establishing a city ordinance allowing dogs on the outside dining area, and another was the Marina Club. With the membership card, boaters were given a discount to The Oar House and on fuel purchased at the marina. “The result was an increase in boaters visiting the restaurant after a day on the water,” Cyr said.

In 2010, The Oar House, along with many other seafood restaurants, faced another challenge in acquiring and selling seafood, which the restaurant combated with looking at other delicious menu options. “We had to stop selling oysters because the quality was just not there,” Cyr said.

“We reviewed the menu to freshen it up, adding new items such as mahi-mahi, rib-eye steak and expanding the popular baja taco options,” Cyr said. “We have a friendly staff and serve quality food,” Cyr said. “We will continue to focus on the quality of food and the dining experience.”

OH SNAP! CUPCAKES
707-A E. Cervantes St., Suite A, 466-3363, ohsnapcupcakes.com
Lee Newkirk had never had her own business before she opened Oh Snap in July 2010. “I love sweets,” Newkirk said. “Anybody that has ever worked with me can tell you that.”

To Newkirk, cupcakes are just the thing to sell during the recession. “It’s a comfort food, a little bit of sunshine,” Newkirk said. In less than a year Oh Snap has gained 6,000 Facebook fans and has contributed to the community with donated goods going to businesses such as Ronald McDonald House and Pensacola Little Theatre.

At the end of the day all leftovers are taken to the hospitals and first responders in the area. “We bake from scratch every day,” Newkirk said. “If we have a dozen leftovers we give them out to the community. We never throw anything away.”

Newkirk’s gourmet cupcakes are made-to-order with gluten-free and vegan options available as well. Even though Newkirk has never owned her own business, she seems to understand how to make a profit from a specialty shop. “We’re constantly looking at cost and manage spending without compromising quality.”

Future plans include not only more yummy cupcakes, but a second location and evolving current products.

PIZZAZ
832 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze, 934-3436, pizzazgifts.com
Sugarbabies by Pizzaz, 848 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze, 934-0025

Mother and daughter team Viki and Courtney Weir began Pizzaz in May 2008. It was an idea the two had talked about since Courtney was a little girl.

“We took a risk, quit our jobs and invested every penny we had between the two of us and worked 24/7 for the first three years,” said Viki Weir in an e-mail interview. “Retail is not easy,” Weir said.  “It takes a lot of work and commitment, but if you put the time in, offer the right product, and most importantly great customer service, it pays off.”

The gift shop is unique in that you can personalize almost every item for sale by embroidery, engraving, printing, heat press and other processes. Pizzaz also provides complimentary gift wrap and shipping.

When buying for the store, the two think of what is missing in the area. “We look for two things: unique items you can’t find in the big stores, and price point,” Weir said.

Since they have been in business, Pizzaz has moved into a building more than three times the size of their original location. They’ve also opened up another store, Sugarbabies by Pizzaz, specializing in baby and children’s gifts. “We had so many requests for baby and children’s apparel and gift items that we couldn’t fit in Pizzaz,” she said.

As long as the community needs to buy unique gifts, Pizzaz will have no trouble sustaining its success. “It is truly a challenge in these economic times to stay optimistic about the future in retail,” Weir said. “We were able to weather the oil spill crisis last summer because of the loyalty of our local community.”

PLAY
16 S. Palafox, iplaypensacola.com
Before you wash your sorrows away in a cold, empty bar, try visiting Play, a one-of-a-kind “barcade” that has a full service bar as well as arcade games both new and old.

“We are a full service neighborhood bar with a highly competitive skee ball league, hoops tournament, circus fare munchies, sno-cones and tons of games that will make you remember when it was okay to drink out of your water hose,” said co-owner Albert Lao.

During these trying times, the owners of Play have become more spiritual. “During this recession or depression, based on who you asked, we pray a lot more than usual,” Lao said. “Besides just that we use it as an opportunity to grow our business as much as possible. We actually spend more because we can get more for our dollar during the tough times.”

The growth of the business has been in talks since Lao and Edwin Banacia opened Play. “My partners and I are all very driven individuals,” Lao said. “We look at expansion and growth as diversifying our portfolio.”

Now that Play has continued to be successful throughout the recession, it appears this spiritual bunch is unstoppable. “We opened our first business during the worst of the latest economic crash,” Lao said. “Quite literally, we were investing in a market that was not only in a downturn, but in fact in an all-out free fall. We survived, adapted and most importantly, innovated. Now, nothing scares us.”

RUNNING WILD
3012 E. Cervantes St., 435-9222, werunwild.com
Running Wild began after Paul Epstein’s wife gave him an ultimatum.

Epstein knew he was going to use the equity on his house to start a business, but he didn’t know what. Eventually, the ex-Army helicopter pilot chose to start a business based on a hobby he’s had his whole life: running. “There are no other running shoe stores, so that’s a plus,” Epstein said.

Since Epstein opened Running Wild in August 2000, he has transformed the fitness retail regime. It’s not Foot Locker, where some high school kid hands you a size 9 and secretly prays you don’t need a different size. Instead, Running Wild is made up of a staff that walks the walk and runs the run.

And the customer service has kept Running Wild successful. “Business has been pretty strong,” Epstein said. “The initial hit has not been as bad as some general retail stores may have faced.” That’s because Epstein actually wants to help customers. “We don’t just sell products, we enhance lives,” Epstein said. “We tell them what works, what’s the better value in an encouraging and uplifting environment.”

During the recession, Epstein has made it a point to reward customers who continue to shop at Running Wild with a customer loyalty program that gives the customers cash back on purchases as well as specials. Epstein and his staff will continue to be knowledgeable and positive. “I always think of tomorrow as my last day in business,” Epstein said. “I never stop running.”

VINYL MUSIC HALL
2 S. Palafox, 607-6758, vinylmusichall.com
Imagine starting a business in this economy and depending on musicians. It doesn’t sound like a solid investment, but in no time, Vinyl has become the place to see live music in Pensacola—and the only mid-size venue in the area. “We were aware that the current economic environment would create some challenges, especially for the entertainment industry,” said Evan Levin, one of the partners with Vinyl, in an e-mail interview. “We knew that we would have to bring a fresh new concept to the area in order to survive and even thrive through our first year.”

Vinyl Music Hall books a variety of local, regional and national acts. Whatever genre of music you listen to, Vinyl has probably booked an artist to get you groovin’. “We pride ourselves on the diversity of our acts so that we have something to offer every music lover,” Levin said. “This helps us stay fresh and not oversaturate one segment of the market.”

Although you can’t predict who will be next to play on Vinyl’s custom, state-of-the-art stage, you can bet that Vinyl will continue to grow. “We’re encouraged by the energy and the direction of downtown Pensacola and are looking forward to being a continued part of this revitalization,” Levin said.

WATERBOYZ
380 N. Ninth Ave., 433-2929, waterboyz.com
It began in a garage on Pensacola Beach in 1989, when a few close friends who called themselves Waterboyz started making surfboards and t-shirts for themselves. Very “Lords of Dogtown,” only with a happier ending.

Throughout the years, Waterboyz has suffered, but this recession has been a rough patch in the business. “It seems like the economy is always going up or down and since 1989 we have seen a couple peaks and valleys in the economic flow, but I feel this is the worst we’ve encountered,” said owner Sean Fell. “We’ve had to minimize all expenses and look for additional revenue streams. We also revived our dormant contract screen printing service.”

The full service surf, skate, skim and SUP shop is also the only skate park in town. “We manufacture our own line of surfboards, skateboards and SUPs and also produce custom-made boards as well as manufacture our own line of clothing,” Fell said. “We are a full service screen printing and advertising specialty supplier for any local or national business. We supply anything from t-shirts to umbrellas to coolers to chocolates with your logo on it.”

Staying diverse has kept Waterboyz in business—even when surfers couldn’t go out on the beach last summer. “We do whatever has to be done,” Fell said. “Work hard, treat your customers with care and respect, and keep a positive attitude.”

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