JACKSONVILLE, Fla — A quarter-century of serving up savory grilled chicken wings, hand-battered fried gator tail and signature pickle chips came to an end when Gator's Dockside Baymeadows abruptly closed this week.
The family-friendly sports bar and grill at 8650 Baymeadows Road in Jacksonville closed permanently on Tuesday.
Opened 25 years ago, the Baymeadows restaurant was the oldest in the Gator's Dockside chain headquartered in Lake Mary, Fla. Four other Gator's Dockside restaurants remain open in Northeast Florida.
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the Baymeadows eatery, said Sandra Clark, director of operations for Gator Group, which owns the restaurant chain.
The beginning of the end came with the initial statewide shutdown of restaurants due to the pandemic. That set off a chain reaction that made it impossible for the Baymeadows location to remain open, she said.
"Then being open only for to-go business, then reopening at 50 percent, you can not make a go of it," Clark said. "No one makes a business plan to operate at less than 100 percent, of course."
Further complicating the situation, Clark said the restaurant's lease also was ending.
"The landlord did not feel that he could work with us on a lower lease rate moving forward. He would rather have his full rent or a vacant spot," Clark said.
Nearly 16,000 restaurants nationwide had closed permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic as of July 10. That represents about 60 percent of the eateries that previously closed temporarily due to the pandemic, shows Yelp's Q2 Economic Average Report — the most recent data.
Gator's Dockside Baymeadows is among the latest Jacksonville restaurants to buckle beneath financial losses due to the pandemic and resulting statewide mandates intended to reduce exposure to the virus.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 20 ordered all Florida restaurants to shut down their dining rooms. Only delivery or takeout were allowed during the shutdown. In early May, DeSantis allowed restaurants and retail shops statewide to reopen at 25 percent capacity. Two weeks later, DeSantis raised the dine-in capacity limit to 50 percent.
Among the Jacksonville-area restaurants that have closed due to the pandemic are 10/Six Grille, an Alice in Wonderland-themed eatery in downtown Jacksonville, the Magnificat Cafe also downtown, and Safe Harbor Seafood Riverside and Marah Brewing Company in Five Points.
Disappointed customers said Gator's Dockside Baymeadows was best known for its grilled chicken wings, fried gator tail nuggets and burgers — all washed down with a cold beer while televisions showed football, basketball or baseball.
"It's a damn shame, them closing. I thought they were closed temporarily for remodeling or something. I didn't realize they were closed, closed. I mean for good until I got here," said Shaun Huffman when he stopped by Tuesday night for some wings.
Clark said many of the 35 Baymeadows employees relocated to other Gator's Dockside locations.
"Those that were willing and able to move to another location we of course are happy to keep our folks employed. Finding staff these days is extremely hard as most restaurant operators know," Clark said.
On its website, Gator's Dockside lists 25 restaurants throughout Florida, including four in Northeast Florida: 8316 Merchants Way in Oakleaf; 485 State Road 13 North in St. Johns; 96150 David Hallman Parkway in Yulee; and 105 Murabella Parkway in St. Augustine.