UPDATED: October 24, 2016 12:00 PM — Gift shop magnates who helped create the former Ocean Air Enterprises retail empire are launching a new gift store concept, with a prototype planned to open in 2017 on the site of the Black Angus steakhouse on C.R. 535 in Lake Buena Vista.
"We want to revolutionize gift stores," John Nehmatallah told GrowthSpotter.
That means no more giant wizard heads, eagles or mermaids that became visual staples of the group's tourism corridor stores.
"We want a new gift store," Nehmatallah said. "We want it cleaner. We don't want all of these gigantic icons. But yet we don't want to just sell you shirts, so we're changing everything. We're changing the way that we build, we're changing the way we develop. We're changing Orange County's thinking about how to do parking."
The plan was to rebuild the Black Angus steakhouse and lease it back to the seller, but also to co-locate an 8,000-square-foot gift store on the site.
As director of operations for DB Retail Stores Inc., Nehmatallah was tasked with finding a way to squeeze 14,000 square feet of commercial use on the 1-acre site. The company, headed by Nadeem and Hamida Battla, paid $4.25 million for the existing restaurant. Without additional parking, they would have been limited to half the square footage.
"That made it difficult unless we do a parking garage, and that's very costly and expensive and takes up most of our building area," he said.
The only way to make it work was to convince Orange County Commissioners to let them install mechanical parking lifts for their employee parking.
The lifts, manufactured and sold by KATOPARK, cost $22,000 per unit but can fit three vehicles into a single parking space. Such lifts are common in larger cities around the world where premium land prices negate surface parking, but would be a first in Orlando's tourism corridor.
It was an uphill battle at first. A neighboring Denny's restaurant and representatives from Darden, which owns a nearby Olive Garden, opposed the project when it went to development review in 2015, saying it violated the property deed restrictions. Nehmatallah said they eventually dropped their opposition.
"They realized this was something that could be beneficial to them," he said. "This is used heavily in other major cities. It saves space and time. Employees park their cars for eight hours, so it just makes sense to park there and have an attendant, and he can access the cars."
The county approved a Development Plan utilizing five parking lifts, which accommodate 15 vehicles.
Engineer Raymond Stangle with Jordan Companies worked with Nehmatallah, a former general contractor, to design the building with a walled and roofed enclosure at the back to camouflage the employee parking area. They even managed to fit an 80-square-foot ticket kiosk in the front of the building.
"After six months, if there's no hiccups, they'll let me have another 10 spaces - so that's 45 cars," Nehmatallah said.
Demolition starts this week on the restaurant. The gift shop and restaurant should both be open within nine months. "When we're done this will be over $10 million investment -- that includes the land and entitlements," Nehmatallah said.
Stangle has begun incorporating the parking lifts as allowable uses in other PDs, including two in Osceola County. In both cases, the developer had no intention of installing the KATOPARK system in the first phase but wanted the option for use in later phases.
The Battlas, who broke off from Ocean Air three years ago, see the Black Angus redevelopment as a prototype for their new gift store concept. Nehmatallah said they already have contracts and vendor agreements at four other locations: a second location on C.R. 535, two on International Drive and one on W192 in Kissimmee.
While there won't ever be another giant wizard head, a more tasteful mermaid could make a reappearance in front of the gift shop
"We don't want all those icons," he said. "They're fading, they look terrible, and they're not being kept up. We did them 30 years and thank God we left that. We want to learn from it."
The store design isn't the only new concept. "We don't just want to sell you T-shirts and keychains," he said, noting that Ocean Air sold more keychains than any retailer in the nation.
The new stores will offer 3D interactive experiences where visitors could dance with Michael Jackson or become their favorite Star Wars character.
"We're going to have something different – we want you to come in and experience a virtual reality where you can record it on a thumb drive and we'll give it to you and that's yours," Nehmatallah said. "So we're teaming up with some really heavy entertainment houses."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the buyers and sale price for the Black Angus property.