‘We’re depressed and saddened’: Fort Lauderdale beachfront restaurant Park & Ocean to close amid concessionaire shake-up

There’s a new concessionaire in town at Fort Lauderdale’s Hugh Taylor Birch State Park — and park tenants have been worrying its arrival will threaten their existence there.

The first casualty: Beachfront restaurant Park & Ocean.

The picturesque hangout is scheduled to permanently close Dec. 26 after 6 1/2 years in business, owner Steven Dapuzzo told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Thursday. The dog-friendly eatery, nestled in a lush grove of tropical hammocks, held a sunny allure for park dwellers and beachgoers, serving up smoked fish dip, conch fritters, salads and burgers along with local craft beer, live music and patio games.

Dapuzzo said he received the “disappointing” news that it must close on Thursday afternoon from ExplorUS, a Kansas-based park concessionaire that won a state bid in November to assume park operations starting Dec. 28.

“It sucks. It’s such a great spot. I thought it would be there for 30 years,” Dapuzzo said. “We’re depressed and saddened by it, but there’s a lot of people we want to say goodbye to.”

Once it closes, Dapuzzo said Park & Ocean’s eight longtime employees would relocate to The House on the River and Wild Thyme Oceanside Eatery, two Fort Lauderdale restaurants owned by Dapuzzo’s Society 8 Hospitality Group.

ExplorUS operates dozens of park properties in 17 states, mostly in the Midwest, West Coast and in Hawaii, according to its website. It will replace Birch State Park’s current concessionaire, BG Parks, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection confirmed.

Even so, the state declined to provide a copy of its new concessionaire agreement because a contract hasn’t officially been signed yet, said Nikki Clifton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That agreement to pick ExplorUS came after what she called a “competitive” bidding process that was “ranked by a panel of independent evaluators,” she added.

The state had hired BG in 2015 to program visitor services such as concessions, kayak and paddleboard rentals, weddings and private-event rentals. Along with Park & Ocean, BG also operates park restaurants Blue Marlin Fish House at Oleta River State Park in North Miami Beach and Whiskey Creek Hideout at Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park in Dania Beach.

In a statement, Clifton declined to explain why the state sought a new concessionaire in the first place. But Birch State Park’s profit-and-loss balance sheets paint a glaring picture of stagnating profits since 2017, the earliest year figures were available online.

Park and Ocean restaurant in Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, December 4, 2023. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

(Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The dog-friendly Park & Ocean in Fort Lauderdale has been serving up smoked fish dip, conch fritters, salads and burgers along with local craft beer, live music and patio games. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

From 2017 to 2022, the gross sales BG Parks made from rentals, tours, events, food and beverage, retail and concessions totaled $10.7 million, according to state records updated in May. Even so, after expenses, it resulted in a net loss of $19,342 over the same period.

ExplorUS CEO Frank Pikus told the Sun Sentinel that its new 10-year concessionaire agreement should be finalized and signed this month, letting the company revamp the 175-acre Birch State Park’s lone restaurant, equipment rentals and aging buildings, which “must be brought up to modern codes,” he said.

The 182-seat Park & Ocean must go, he adds, because Dapuzzo’s Society 8 Hospitality Group was brought on as a BG subcontractor in 2017.

“We’ll have a different brand, and we’ll have our own menu,” said Pikus, whose company has a history of turning around underperforming park concessions. “Any (restaurant) that was associated with (the previous concessionaire) won’t be there anymore.”

Dapuzzo, for his part, said ExplorUS’ decision to shut Park & Ocean down “leaves a bruise” for the park’s dining options.

“We were never commercialized,” Dapuzzo said. “We offer fresh food, local brews and appeal to the local communities. I can only conclude that BG didn’t get its contract renewed because they’re a local company competing against a big national brand.”

He said Park & Ocean’s joint bid with BG Parks was rejected despite offering to kick up a higher commission, or percentage of annual profits it shares with the state agency. (Dapuzzo paid 13% in 2022, per state records.)

High on ExplorUS’ priority list is renovating the park’s Glenn F. Bates Garden Center, home to the almost century-old organization Fort Lauderdale Garden Club. Pikus, the company’s CEO, said the garden club can stay and isn’t planning to evict it.

“We’re excited with the opportunity to work with the garden club to continue using the building and to uplift some of the facilities,” Pikus said. “They have some exciting initiatives that are also core to our mission.”

ExplorUS’ intentions weren’t clear to club president Sharon Bogard until this week. Her nonprofit hosts meetings, fundraisers for student horticulture camps, garden shows and special events at the garden center. Once the club’s 156 members heard about a new concessionaire, they raised fears about being pushed out of the home base they’ve used for 75 years.

Amid this confusion, in late November, Bogard said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — the club’s landlord — ordered the nonprofit to clear out equipment and books from the center for “long-overdue renovations.”

“At first, we weren’t sure how we’d function moving forward. But (ExplorUS) have assured us that we will have a home, but at what cost, we don’t know,” said Bogard, adding that she hopes the club can negotiate a new lease with ExplorUS.

The club’s lease agreement with the Florida agency expired in December 2022 and “we’ve been operating on good faith unofficially ever since,” Bogard said.

Pikus said a new lease agreement with the garden club would be ironed out over the coming weeks, although he declined to offer a specific timetable. He said the garden center is “dated” and lacks ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps, bathrooms and amenities like WiFi. His company plans to renovate the building into a moneymaker, throwing private events and weddings when the garden club isn’t using it.

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