Galveston restaurateur Dennis Byrd expects to seat some 750,000 diners this year. And, at that, he’s convinced he’s missing out on business.
For Byrd, like business owners all over the island, parking for customers is in short supply. He is one of the first owners of a medium-sized business to invest in building a multilevel parking garage in an effort to deal with the shortage.
Byrd’s five restaurants and bars operate under the corporate umbrella Island Famous Inc., of which Byrd is the sole shareholder: The Spot, Rum Shack, Sideyard, Squeeze Ritas and Tequilas, and Tiki Bar. They are clustered in a single property along Seawall Boulevard at 32nd Street.
“During the peak season, we serve 4,000 guests a day,” Byrd said. “We estimate that this year we’ll serve 750,000 guests. When you’re serving that many guests, parking becomes a problem.”
That’s especially true given The Spot’s prime location, he said.
“The challenge we have is that tourism is our number-one source of revenue, and beaches are the number-one attraction,” Byrd said. “Our solution is developing a parking garage. In theory, that means less traffic in our neighborhoods and more traffic in our restaurants.”
Byrd recently submitted design plans to the city of Galveston’s planning department for a three-and-a-half-story parking garage at 32nd Street and Avenue S, to be built on an existing surface lot just north of The Spot. He said the 130-space project is expected to cost between $1 million and $2 million and be open by summer 2017.
Byrd anticipates breaking ground early next year, although, he conceded, “the timelines are still fluid. We just went to permit two weeks ago.”
With “construction documents completed and submitted, we expect a relatively quick decision from the city,” he said. “We don’t anticipate needing any variances.”
The garage “is smaller than allowed by current city regulations,” he said.
Byrd said he was limiting the proposed height of the structure “to be a good neighbor to the community that surrounds us. It’s at a height that works well with the neighborhood.”
The garage will boost Island Famous’ parking capacity from 117 spaces to 247.
Byrd began working at The Spot in 1998 as a fry cook while pursuing a degree at Louisiana State University in international trade and finance, an academic nod to what he considers his forte.
“My strength is that I understand numbers,” he said. “If something doesn’t add up, I can look at the numbers and figure out what the problem is.
“My team understands operations.”
When he bought the property in 2002 — it had been founded in 1998 by Marion and Diane Duzich, from whom he purchased it — he figured the financial risk was minimal.
“I thought, ‘What was the worst thing that could happen? I could fail,’” he said. “And if I did, I had nothing anyone could take from me. I was driving a 1996 pickup that was worth $7,000 at most, not even worth seizing, and sleeping on a mattress upstairs.”
The operation was financially challenged.
“On paper, the property was losing $1,000 a day,” he said, wearing the same black polo shirt emblazed with the company name that his 225 peak-season employees wear. “We broke even in a year. How? We cut a lot of fat and worked a lot of hours. For the first four and a half years, I didn’t have a day off. For the first six years we reinvested every dollar of profitability into the business.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Byrd is looking at ways to monetize the garage.
“It could be something that has revenue potential,” he said. “Maybe three-hour validation and our guests pay beyond that.”
The city also has long struggled with parking along Seawall Boulevard, particularly on weekends during the peak tourism season.
Byrd said he is open to expanding the garage if the city is interested in entering into a public/private arrangement to do so.
“We’ve heard the city is looking for more parking at the seawall, but they haven’t reached out to us,” he said. “Our development will serve our needs, but if the city is interested, we’ll be open to talk.”
The city has some interest, City Manager Brian Maxwell said, but given time and budget constraints, working with Byrd on this project is unlikely, at best.
“Given the time frame and what funding is available, I’d say the odds are very low,” Maxwell said. “He’s moving quicker than we are.”