[ INJECTING NEW LIFE ]
Fresh Territory: Cleveland Heights Golf Course Wants to Be Must-Visit Destination
Published: Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 9:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 9:15 p.m.
LAKELAND | Natalie Oldenkamp thought she was out of the restaurant business when her popular sports bar closed in the summer.
"I missed the people, and now we have a lot of our former customers and friends and employees here. I have the best of both worlds."
Then the city of Lakeland came calling. The offer: Come help us run the food and beverage operations at the public Cleveland Heights Golf Course. Make us a nighttime destination for hungry sports fans, and bring in more revenue.
"I was flattered that they came to me," said Oldenkamp, a trim, 48-year-old blonde who was the namesake of Natalie's Sports Bar and Grill on South Florida Avenue. "I figured it would be fun, and it is."
A restaurant industry veteran and former general manager with Hooters, Oldenkamp never seemed to have much trouble filling the parking lot at her own sports bar. But when food costs and other management headaches got to be too much, she shut it down in August after more than three years in business.
Bob Donahay saw that as an opportunity. Hired in February as the city's parks and recreation director, he was eager to inject new life, and cash, into Cleveland Heights and expand its appeal beyond the after golf crowd.
"We had to look at ways to get people through the door, whether they come to play golf or not," Donahay said. He saw something special and valuable in Oldenkamp: a built-in following.
"She has a clientele of people that love her ... and know what to expect when they come to a place Natalie runs," Donahay said. "She's so nice. If you don't like Natalie, you need to check yourself."
Cleveland Heights has long struggled to find the right formula for its evening restaurant operations. It once housed the Gosh! Asian Bistro, which relocated to South Florida Avenue in 2006 because of space constraints. Other concepts came and went.
Donahay said increasing food and drink sales at Cleveland Heights is vital because the golf facility was running at a deficit of approximately $800,000 (including a $250,000 payment on the building) in its most recent budget year.
"The whole idea is to shrink the (city) subsidy," he said.
Oldenkamp started work at Cleveland Heights about a month ago, earning $20 per hour (with no benefits) as the part-time food and beverage manager. She splits time between the golf course and her other new career, selling real estate with Realty World Homes of Distinction in Lakeland.
She's trying some new things at Cleveland Heights — bringing in live music, adding craft beers and new wing sauces, and hiring some of her former staff from Natalie's. Improving the overall level of service is another focus.
"It was a smart move recruiting her," said Larry Ross, a business professor at Florida Southern College and restaurant consultant. "Natalie is a brand ... she has a tremendous amount of goodwill built up over the years."
Donahay said he's been very pleased with Oldenkamp's work thus far, and said he, Oldenkamp and other managers at Cleveland Heights are meeting regularly to discuss future plans for the site.
Ultimately, he wants Cleveland Heights to be part of the conversation when local diners are in the mood to kick back at a sports bar.
"We want to be on everybody's top five — ‘Hey, have you been to the Heights lately?' That's what we want to hear them say," Donahay said.
The arrangement has been working just fine for Oldenkamp, too.
"I didn't miss the restaurant [ownership] so much and all of the stress. I missed the people, and now we have a lot of our former customers and friends and employees here," she said. "I have the best of both worlds."
[ Kyle Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7584. ]
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