We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2021, and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live in what will surely be a changed – and charged – post-Covid world. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2021.
A decade into his deep dive into the hospitality business, real estate developer Chuck Prather – owner of the Birchwood, with its Birch & Vine restaurant and Canopy rooftop bar, and the three restaurants at the apex of the new St. Pete Pier – said he considers every day an opportunity for fresh learning.
“You do your best to train your staff that the customer’s right,” Prather said. “You do your best to hire quality employees. You do your best, always, to find a way to say yes – when possible. And that is not always easy, to find a way to please people. But we never stop trying.”
Prather, 59, grew up in Tampa and spent decades developing buildings there for the federal government. He and his wife, Dr. Kathy Reilly Prather, have lived on this side of the bay since 1991.
In 2011, they bought a vintage 1924 hotel on Beach Drive, in foreclosure, for $1.8 million. Two years and several million in renovations later, the Birchwood threw open its doors.
Hospitality, he said in a 2018 Catalyst interview, appealed to him enormously. “If you build a government building, it’s thrilling – you go from finding a site to designing the building to ultimately turning the keys over to the tenant – and then the excitement is done. Then you just operate your building, which is very mundane.
“When you do that with a restaurant or a hotel – or in my case, both – that’s just the very beginning. With hospitality, you get to share the beauty of the property with the public.”
The success of the Birchwood led, directly, to Prather and company being granted the lease for Teak Restaurant, Pier Teaki and the Driftwood Café, 3,000 feet out at the very end of the pier.
Since the facility debuted, in late May, his triple-threat has been doing bang-up business.
And still, he said, the learning continues. Covid-19 has played a major role.
“We always did our best to maintain a clean, safe, healthy environment. And the state makes sure it’s not just our word.
“But how do you take it to another level? That’s one of the lessons we’ve learned. So we’re constantly sanitizing and re-sanitizing surfaces, especially those that are commonly-touched by employees and the public. That won’t go away.
“We’ll never live in a sterile environment, we understand that. But we have to try harder in the future. That’s the lesson that I’ve taken away from it.”
As for 2021 and beyond, Prather was non-committal. “My plate is still very, very full with the infancy of this operation that I’ve taken on out at the pier,” he said.