LITHIA — My phone started lighting up on the night of Friday the 13th. Friends were texting to see if I knew why Park Square Cellar & Bistro was closed.
Odd, I thought. Their annual Wine Fest was scheduled for the next day. They’ve been doing those since 2005 in what passes for a downtown in FishHawk.
“They’re probably closed early to get ready,” I told friends.
Secretly, I feared the worst.
The clincher came when my mom called after having dinner with her church friends. One of them had been in the restaurant when a staff member told those who were enjoying dinner and drinks that it would be closing that night and reopening in three weeks.
Restaurants open and close all the time, especially in the volatile business climate of Brandon and Valrico. That little pizza joint that makes crazy great pie? The family-owned doughnut shop? That taco stand you dug next to the gas station? You had better enjoy it because it could be gone tomorrow.
But Park Square was different. It was upscale without being snooty. I could eat salmon roulade and enjoy a great Chardonnay while wearing cargo shorts and boat shoes.
My extended family celebrated my son’s 18th birthday on the rustic, wooden farm table in the wine store the restaurant turned into a private dining area. The menu offered phenomenal cheeses and house-made charcuterie at the front end and a bag of doughnuts with chocolate dipping sauces at the back end. Drinking peanut butter and jelly vodka martinis while listening to a live combo play funky music a few feet away made my Top 10 List Of Things I Never Want To End.
So it was personal for me when I heard they closed.
It didn’t help that I had gotten to know owners Mary and Shawn Sarkisian during my visits.
The couple moved to Florida from Boston because, quite honestly, Shawn got tired of being cold. They had family in Anna Maria Island and Saddlebrook. Leaving the corporate world and starting fresh in a warm, familiar place seemed like a great idea.
Neither had been in the food business before, so they bought into a wine and cheese shop in FishHawk Square from a military couple who were relocating. They opened as Park Square Cellar in October 2005 with a menu of cheese and small plates and an extensive wine inventory with a built-in customer base.
Slowly, the little town square began to fill with other businesses, including a restaurant next door. But then the economic downturn took a giant swipe at FishHawk. Lots of over-mortgaged families lost their homes or moved out. The people who used to spend $40 at a time on wine, spent $25 instead. Those who spent $25 instead spent $15.
Not wanting to dig into their life’s savings, Mary and Shawn decided they would close the cellar. But then customers came forward to beg that they stay. And the landlord offered them the space next door where a restaurant had gone out of business.
One of their customers, Kevin Fulcher, offered to join them as partners. So they pushed through a wall and expanded in October 2010 into being a full-service bar and restaurant with an outdoor patio that overlooked the park.
First, though, they surveyed about 200 neighboring residents to ask what they wanted in a restaurant. The results: A non-chain, cool spot with bistro-style food, more fine dining in a comfortable setting.
“People said, ‘You have Outback and Beef O’ Brady’s and Chili’s and all these pizza places,” Mary remembers. “They said, ‘Do something cool in neighborhood.”
So they changed the menu seasonally and cooked as close to farm-to-table as possible. They introduced live music and made arrangements for parents to drop their kids off at Art Monkey a few doors down so they could have Adults Night Out.
They had wine clubs and email blasts and family dinners on Sundays. They hired good chefs and donated food to charities and did all the things a neighborhood restaurant does to be a good neighbor.
And then, along the way, the Sarkisians lost their family life.
Shawn was spending 80 hours a week managing the restaurant. Mary put in another 60 on her own when she wasn’t driving their children Grace, 12, and John, 10, to school and activities.
“Our children were 3 and 1 at the time we opened,” Mary says. “The last three years became incredibly difficult for us to manage the restaurant and family life.”
The couple loved the part of the business where customers become friends. The tough part was when they would hear about wonderful trips to Disney or dinners and barbecues they couldn’t attend. Shawn would go to a party for one hour while Mary covered the restaurant. Then they’d swap.
“You have to be open for Easter and Mother’s Day and all of those holidays,” she said. “I’d like to have Easter off and have dinner with my family.”
So the Sarkisians decided to sell their shares to Fulcher and return to a life with more normal hours and weekends that were flexible and holidays that didn’t require 20-hour work days.
The restaurant didn’t close as cleanly as they hoped, but then closings are never as tidy as openings. Word is that the space will reopen in a few weeks with a new name and different menu, but nothing formal has been announced.
After the closing, friends and customers told Mary how sorry they were that Park Square was gone. But her children are happy dad and mom are home at night. They cook dinners and spend time together. Running the restaurant is exhilarating and tiring and rewarding and frustrating, but life moves on.
“I’m okay with not being married to the cellar,” she says. “I have my family back and my husband back.”
Life is short. Kids grow fast. Restaurants open and restaurants close.