By Becky Billingsley
Friday, June 25, 2010, Myrtle Beach - For 64 years Dino Thompson has had a front row seat to observe the Myrtle Beach restaurant industry, and he has observations about changes he has witnessed.
Thompson, a local restaurateur icon, owned other area restaurants before launching Cagney's Old Place Restaurant on Restaurant Row in Myrtle Beach in the mid-1970s. His partner is Dino Drosas, and the men also own Flamingo Grill in Myrtle Beach. But Thompson's restaurant experience began as a baby when he and his parents moved to Myrtle Beach in 1946 and the couple opened the Kozy Korner. It was in the heart of downtown Myrtle Beach, which Thompson says was about three blocks long in those days.
The recession has had Thompson thinking about changes in the industry and wondering how long before - or if - local longtime restaurant owners will see a return to the boom days.
"The greatest change in foodservice is chains," he said at Cagney's on June 21. "Chains changed the entire world. It created the sameification of the entire country. You drive down Main Street in any major town in the nation and you see 80 of the same chains. Is that good, is that bad? I don't know, but it's extraordinarily different from when Mom and Pops had their little niches in the neighborhoods where we grew up."
The first chain to come to Myrtle Beach was Howard Johnson's, in the early 1950s, Thompson said.
"Then we didn't have another for a while, until we got Schraft's, which lasted a year. McDonald's came in the 1960s - Mr. Ciacco was the owner. A lot of chains didn't want to come here because we were so seasonal."
And the area is still seasonal, he says, noting that in 40 years he has never once broken even during winter months.
Cagneys is in its 35th season, and when it was built Chesapeake House was only one other restaurant on Restaurant Row. Locals thought the restaurateurs were crazy to build their businesses so far from town, because back then that area of Kings Highway, at the north end of Myrtle Beach, was still mostly farm land. Lake Arrowhead Road was dirt, and the only other business around was a general store.
But diners drove to Cagney's and Chesapeake House. They came in the 1970s, and through the condo boom of the 1980s and into the development craze of the 1990s. Hundreds and hundreds of new restaurants were built.
Then there were too many restaurants, Thompson said.
"I have compiled a list of 1,100 restaurant that have come and gone in this area," he said. "About 800 just since we opened Cagney's."
Myrtle Beach has been named No. 1 in the nation for several years in a row by industry experts, but Thompson thinks the market is oversaturated.
"Restaurant growth potential - we howl and cringe when we hear that. Between Barefoot Landing and Broadway at the Beach - just those two venues alone - there are about 10,000 restaurant seats. If they do three table turns per night, they can serve 1/7 of every tourist in town today. And then we have another 1,600 restaurant besides those. We're so overbuilt, like a lot of resorts."
But on a June 21, a Monday night, Cagney's had an almost full parking lot. Diners still want to experience the steaks, the classically prepared seafood and the tradition of Cagney's. Thompson was seated in the lounge area between the restaurant's bar and dancin' room, and as he chatted at least a dozen diners wandered through to look at decor items salvaged from the historic Ocean Forest Hotel.
"But really restaurants never die - they just become other restaurants," Thompson said. "Every one was somebody's dream, somebody's great idea, somebody's Mom and Pop career. Restaurants are one of the few businesses people will open without any experience. Hardly any other career is like that. You don't see people becoming plumbers or electricians without experience, although you need to be a plumber and an electrician to own a restaurant.
"Everybody thinks they can open a restaurant with the seven great recipes their grandmother gave them. Mom may like to decorate and dad may be an amateur cook, but that's not a good reason to open a restaurant. Would they like to make those same six or seven recipes 70 or 80 times in one night, and every night? Then it's not fun."
Thompson said his restaurants are slowly recovering from the recession.
"Business is okay. 2007 was a good year, and then in 2008 the world was coming to an end, we all thought. People hunkered down for a couple of years, and now they're slowly sneaking their way out of the doldrums...People will start to feel better slowly."
Dino Thompson wrote a book about his life growing up as the son of a restaurant owner called Greek Boy Growing Up Southern. It can be purchased in the bar at Cagney's. Thompson also has a blog with his musings about the restaurant industry that can be read on the Cagney's website.