The water around the docks was glassy and undisturbed as restaurant manager John-Paul Genaro, 31, took pictures of a strawberry margarita in front of dozens of empty tables.
One lonely margarita, looking for long walks on the beach, he wrote, posting the photo on Facebook.
That was last week. Now, after Memorial Day revelry, the family-owned Lake Norman Motel and ground-floor Landing Restaurant and Tiki Bar in the small town of Sherrills Ford is abuzz with flip-flops and sunburned bodies.
On a summer weekend night, 2,000 to 3,000 people might come through the lake-side restaurant, John-Paul says. In the dead of winter? Maybe a handful.
We make our money ... from Memorial Day to Labor Day, he says. If its under 70 degrees, were empty.
Like many business owners dependent on hot days and clear skies, (could have done without this years incessant spring showers, thankyouverymuch, John-Paul says), the Genaro family has high hopes for the coming summer and more than 30 on staff.
But even as the forecasts get sunnier, the water gets warmer and hordes of folks start pouring in, the family-owned business is working toward diversifying their business model, creating a more sustainable year-round operation. And that, John-Paul says, requires creativity.
Boating for ribs
John-Paul Genaros parents, Halina and the late Big Tony, bought the Lake Norman Motel and restaurant in 1993.
It first opened in the early 70s. The restaurant/bar, just a couple miles from Duke Energys McGuire Nuclear Station, was what they call a honky tonk, a biker hangout, says Halina Genaro.
The building also was condemned. When the Genaros bought the property, the restaurant had closed and the motel was barely operational.
Each of the 14 rooms had dirty carpet in a different shade, John-Paul Genaro says. There were holes in the walls. The roof, porch and plumbing and electrical systems were in disrepair. Several motel rooms were running off a generator.
The county gave the family three months to reconcile more than 100 code violations. So Tony and Halina enlisted the family for help.
The youngest two children, Christina and John-Paul, then 11, helped with the cleaning and remodeling. The oldest child, Tony Jr., then 21, worked during the day and bartended at night for the crowd of four to 10 people. The food, at the time, consisted of frozen french fries, hamburgers and hotdogs, heated in a microwave at the end of the bar.
That menu didnt last long. After updating the kitchen, the Genaros began serving a smorgasbord of seafood, burgers, sandwiches and salads, as well as a few favorite family recipes, such as homemade Italian sausage, meatballs and Big Tonys much-beloved Fall-Off-the-Bone baby back ribs.
One Cornelius couple has been taking their boat across the lake to eat at The Landing for more than 18 years, says bartender Lisa Hall, 55, whos worked for the Genaros for 20 years.
They named their boat The Rib Runner, says Hall. Its (painted) on the back.
Captain Coconut to the rescue
Accessibility, however, used to be a problem for customers coming from the lake. Theres a covered boat dock, but John-Paul rents out those spots for about $2,000 a year.
The other boat slots filled up quickly.
So nine years ago, the Genaros happened on a great idea: a pontoon to ferry customers in from their boats, which they anchor at the wide mouth of the cove. Affectionately referred to as the tiki boat, pontiki or tikitoon, the boat is lined with bamboo posts and has a grass-skirt awning and barrel for a steering column.
John-Pauls father-in-law, Captain Coconut, is usually behind the wheel in a flowered Hawaiian T-shirt.
The most boats theyve ever had at one time: 42. It looked like Christmas out there with all the red and green boat lights, John-Paul says.
The Genaros try to add one new feature every year. They began hosting shag nights, selling Landing merchandise and operating a to-go window. They installed more than 20 arcade games on one side of the restaurant and created a kids play area outside. They built a second bar by the water.
The motel rooms, which cost $64 to $79 per night, bring in but a small portion of the businesss total annual income, John-Paul says.
They made a little extra money last year when Showtimes Emmy Award-winning drama Homeland filmed on site. And when Duke Energy works on their machinery, the repairmen will rent rooms at the motel for a few months.
But nearly 100 percent of their profits come from the restaurant, John-Paul says.
Last year, the whole operation did about $1 million in business, 90 percent of which goes toward staff, repairs and maintenance.
The remainder has to float the family from Labor Day to the following Memorial Day.
John-Paul says it would be easy to close their doors in the off-season. But then the locals would stop thinking about them. And their staff would find other full-time work.
The key, he says, is continuous creativity. His latest idea is a food truck (er, refurbished school bus), that he plans to sell food from during uptown tailgates for Panthers games. John-Paul has put more than $1,200 into it already, and he anticipates it will cost him another $10,000 to $12,000, an expense he expects to recoup quickly.
But for now, hes focused on their summertime throng. He wont be serving lonely margaritas on empty tables any time soon.
McMillan: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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