No business has ever survived in the location of 101 Cantina.
So when I learned that the management of 101 Downtown was investing in the location, I was split between believing that they might be qualified to pull it off and that they were naïve, perhaps even ignorant. Did these cocky restaurateurs know of the ghosts haunting this famous Gainesville graveyard?
Switching metaphors, the site has proven a minefield for hopeful business owners. In the 90’s, the building was the home of Gainesville’s best music store, Schoolkids, where I discovered what was beginning to be called “Alternative” music. This was when CD’s came in elegant paper boxes, the last breath of album art. After Schoolkids (and the death of flannel), the building was split into two retail sites which became who-can-remember-because-they-change-every-year. Today, the summer of 2010, the building hosts 101 Cantina and a brand new Mochi Berry (Gainesville’s third in a year)—a mismatched pair of new shoes in an old hurt locker.
101 Cantina is best entered from behind (no jokes, please) at its outside tiki bar entrance. The bar is a squat hut with a palm thatched roof. During an inevitable Florida shower the roof repels water well, only the fronds do not drape far enough out over the wooden barstools to prevent patrons from getting wet. Instead the bartenders stay dry while your shorts soak up the splashes and drips. Thus, the rain compels you to the inside half of the restaurant which is less fun and less important to describe. I’ll save you boredom and tell you that the tiki bar on a clear day is the only way to do 101 Cantina.
Underneath said thatching are four flat screen TV’s, a well provisioned liquor bar, a fridge stocked with bottled Mexican beers, and bubbly, female bartenders who might take your drink order if they could just turn away from their conversation with their friends who are visiting them at work. If you are lucky, one of the dozen all-male managers skulking around might get her attention. Redeeming the experience is that 101 Cantina hires hotness. This makes critiquing servers difficult for any man, including a manager. So you tolerate damp shorts and the lack of attention from pretty girls.
The restaurant is rife with inefficiencies, not all of which are the fault of servers and managers. For example, if you order a draft beer inside, the bartender has to leave the bar to get it or tell another waitress to get the beer because all the taps are outside. Imagine the clusterfuck on a gameday with this system. When packed, 101 Cantina offers impossible angles to get to and from the inside and outside. Thus, perhaps the largest constraint facing the venue is space. The inside is no larger than an ice-cream parlor (no wonder a Mochi is next door). Most Starbucks are roomier. But the venue size and odd location of the keg cooler can hardly be called anyone’s fault. The employees accommodate as best they can.
101 Cantina’s tiki bar fills a need in Gainesville, however the place gives off the air that you need it but that it does not need you. Locals caught on to this quickly. After a slow opening, word spread in Gainesville that yet another business was trying to make a go. People came once and never returned. See, it takes something special to bring old locals to campus on a non-football day and 101 Cantina somehow fell short.
Doubly upsetting locals was the impending muscling out of Café Gardens, the restaurant adjacent to Cantina 101 that had lasted over thirty years. At Café Gardens’ final evening of business, here was 101 Cantina, the new generation, blowing out the final encore of live folk music in the Café’s patio with its techno and un-censored rap music (i.e. don’t bring kids there). The contrast between new Gainesville and old was palpable.
Salvaging 101 Cantina is the amount of business it gets from its employees (including those from 101 Downtown), their friends and, of course, students. And there are positives. For example, 101 Cantina offers great lunch specials at a low price. The $5 enchiladas are cheaper than Tijuana Flats down the street and at par in quality. Actually, something about the food coming out of a proper prep kitchen makes it taste a little better.
No business has ever survived in the location of 101 Cantina, and one wonders if its owners even care, if longevity and integration into the Gainesville community is a goal of theirs. On their website at 101managementgroup.com they offer little in terms of the background of the group, its members, its leadership, etc. They sum up their mission as having “one simple standard to follow: quality is key.” For all we know, they might just be in Gainesville to pillage, poach and leave once they hit adolescence, if the community allows them to make it that far.
101 Cantina, like many businesses on University Avenue may not survive five years. Should it, then the restaurant might be called a success. Should it not, then I at least hope that the subsequent tenant keeps the tiki hut out back.
Given the history of the location, I often muse about what will come next. My latest hope is that it will be a raw bar, campus could use one. But I still hold out that the location will summon another folksy, humble and consistent place like Café Gardens. Now that was a success.