On Sunday, March 9, Fred Johnson, the CEO of 1 Box Hospitality, which operates Fred’s Southern Kitchen, Fred’s Market and Johnson Barbeque, came to the Bartow location of Fred’s Southern Kitchen and informed employees the store was closing.
It was not an easy decision, said Johnson. At the same time he acknowledged there had been suspicions on the part of employees something was going to take place.
“There had been a lot of rumors,” Johnson said. He acknowledged a reason for that. “We didn’t tell anybody.”
He added there was a reason why official notice of the store closing was kept under wraps until the final day, in order to retain staff in order to operate the restaurant until its last day.
Johnson said a number of factors contributed to the decision. In addition to pressure from government regulations, including the Affordable Care Act. However, it also included the decision to open up a Fred’s in Winter Haven.
“We lost 25 percent of the business in Bartow,” he said. “We cannibalized ourselves.”
The closing, while a shock, was not a surprise to at least some employees.
“Business had been dropping the past two years,” said one employee, there to help with the packing and ultimate transferring or transporting of product, equipment and furnishings. That employee spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak and said efforts had been made to keep the struggling operation going. “He (Fred) did everything in his power to keep it open.”
One of those efforts was closing the Winter Haven Fred’s Southern Cooking restaurant on U.S. 17, which since then had been converted to a Johnson Barbeque.
“The hope was that people would come down from Winter Haven to Bartow, but it never happened,” said the employee. Thus the decision was made. “Fred came in himself and said he was closing down the business.”
It was emotional, Johnson said.
“There were a number of people who teared up,” he said. “I hate it for them.”
Of the 50 employees at Fred’s Southern Cooking, approximately 20 have been offered positions at the other restaurants.
Not everyone will be able to take up the offer, said the anonymous employee. “A number of them have transportation problems.”
Meanwhile, a number of patrons were still not aware the restaurant had abruptly been shut down.
The look on the faces of Daryl and Lela Adams was that of stunned amazement. For some time a brother of Lela had raved about Fred’s Southern Cooking restaurant in Bartow. He often urged her to go there.
“My brother was constantly telling me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go there, sis,’” said Lela. “It was going to be my first time.”
Finally, Lela and Daryl, of Lakeland, decided they would, and Tuesday, March 11, was that day. But there was only one problem. The restaurant had closed its doors for good on Sunday, March 9.
As they stood by the door, reading the sign in the window announcing the closing, Lela was on the phone to her brother.
“They’re closed. They’re out of business,” she said. “There’s a sign in the window. That’s what it says.”
It was obvious the two were disappointed, but perhaps there was a ray of hope. “There’s one in Lakeland. I didn’t know that.”
The Bartow restaurant opened in 2008.
A news release stated the corporation was (sic) “Refocusing Resources on Regional Brand Expansion of New Concepts.” It cited Fred’s Market Restaurant in Riverview and Johnson Barbeque in Winter Haven as examples.
“We have been extremely pleased with the success we have had with our restaurants in Riverview and Winter Haven. We plan to extend these barbecue and local, farm-fresh food concepts into new markets along the I-4 corridor and Gulf Coast,” said Johnson. “We will be concentrating our resources and efforts behind this exciting renovation and expansion.”