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Date of Issue: September 10, 2008

Shells closure signals perilous economy

No shell game
Shells restaurant management staff members Barbara Casper, at left, and Gemma Howley load liquor and other supplies into a vehicle Sept. 3 following the closure of the restaurant in Holmes Beach. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy

In what Island business owners hope is not a portend of the future, Shells seafood restaurant in the Anna Maria Island Centre, Holmes Beach, abruptly closed its doors Sept. 3.

At the same time, the restaurant chain’s corporate office in Tampa announced it had filed for bankruptcy and was closing eight locations, all in Florida.

Staff members reported for work that evening without knowledge that the restaurant was closing or facing difficulty, but Shells chief executive officer Marc Bernstein said the entire restaurant industry “has been negatively affected by the economic downturn.”

He cited the recent closing of the Bennigan’s and Steak & Ale national restaurant chains as indicative of the poor economy and said that in order for Shells to survive “marginal stores” such as the Holmes Beach location had to be closed.

Bernstein said 10 Shells restaurants, all in Florida, will remain open. Four other Shells locations that are not company owned, only managed by the firm, are not affected by the bankruptcy, he said.

“It is our goal to emerge from Chapter 11 as soon as we can with a capital structure and a balance sheet that will allow us to continue to operate,” Bernstein said.

He indicated the Holmes Beach operation would not re-open, but the company would continue to operate the 10 remaining restaurants while it seeks “post-petition financing.”

The seven other Shells that closed on Sept. 3 are in Ocala, Winter Park, Orlando, Kissimmee, Winter Haven, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers.

Management closing up the restaurant Sept. 3 offered a curt “no comment” when asked for details about the closure.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman said it was “disheartening” to learn about Shells, particularly as the Island faces a 45-day closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge beginning Sept. 29.

“I hope this is not the beginning of things to come,” Brockman said, noting that, despite the bridge closure, now is the time for Islanders to be “positive” about the future.

“We need to support all Island businesses while the bridge is closed and spend our money here, not on the mainland. Don’t go off the Island,” she urged Islanders. “Shop local.”

 Efforts to reach Shells spokesperson Jan Broadwater in Tampa for comment were unsuccessful.

With the closure of Shells, the Anna Maria Island Centre, operated by Benderson Development Inc., has a reported 11 vacancies.