Future of Wintzell’s Oyster House uncertain

Published 1:50 pm Monday, February 25, 2013

Residents of the Camellia City hoping for a taste of the Gulf Coast may have to wait a little longer.

In December of 2011, city officials announced that Wintzell’s Oyster House planned to open a restaurant in Greenville, and that the restaurant would likely be open by the summer of 2012 in order to capitalize on the beach traffic along Interstate 65.

But more than a year since the announcement, the lot along Interstate Drive remains vacant.

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“Wintzell’s wants to come to Greenville, and Greenville wants Wintzell’s,” Mayor Dexter McLendon said. “We’re doing everything we can to get them here. From our standpoint everything is still a go. Right now it’s all about finances.”

McClendon said he hopes to know more within a month, but that the lack of investors has slowed the process.

In July, Bob Donlon, Wintzell’s Oyster House CEO, said he was moving forward with plans to open a restaurant in Greenville.

On July 12, Donlon was in the Camellia City to meet with a pair of potential developers interested in purchasing Donlon’s property along Interstate Drive, where the restaurateur plans to open his eatery.

According to Donlon, he would sell the property to the developer who would then be charged with developing the site and constructing the building. Once completed, the developer would then lease the building and the property back to Wintzell’s Oyster House.

It’s a model Donlon said he has used for 10 of the 11 restaurants in the Wintzell’s system, and that he typically signs a 10-year lease with the developer.

Donlon estimates the cost of developing the site and constructing the 5,500 square-foot building to be approximately $1.3 million. He expects to spend another $500,000 to $600,000 to get the restaurant up and running.

“It’s very difficult for an owner/operator to get the bank to finance a project like this,” Donlon said. “Developers do this for a living. They know exactly what to do, especially when it comes to financing the construction side of things. We’ve found over the years that this is really the best way to do it. We want to be restaurant operators. We don’t want to own a lot of buildings. We’ve seen some interest from developers around the state, and finding a developer is all we are missing at this point.”

Once an agreement is reached with a developer, Donlon plans to recruit local investors for a new entity that will own 50 percent of the restaurant. Donlon’s Mobile-based company will retain 50 percent of the ownership.

Once the developer and local investors are in place, Donlon hopes construction can begin on the restaurant in the fall. He estimates that it will take four months to complete the project.

“I feel really good about the project,” Donlon said. “I feel very encouraged that we can put this together. It makes a lot of sense to me to have a Wintzell’s in Greenville.”

Donlon plans to locate Wintzell’s along Interstate Drive across from the Interstate Plaza shopping center. The Timberland Log Homes building is currently located on the property. That building will be removed to make room for the restaurant.

The City of Greenville has also agreed to widen Interstate Drive to give the restaurant more room for its building and parking.

Wintzell’s, which was founded in 1938 by J. Oliver Wintzell, has locations throughout Alabama and Florida. The eatery is know for fresh Gulf seafood, and was named in Willard Scott’s All-American Cookbook for the best oysters and crabs.

According to Donlon, Wintzell’s Oyster House would likely employ 125 workers at its Greenville restaurant.

McLendon said if Wintzell’s does not locate on the lot along Interstate Drive, Zaxby’s would.

Attempts to reach Donlon and Zaxby’s for comment were unsuccessful.