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Published: Tuesday, 3/22/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

The Docks

Before ink dries on deal, owners make over Navy Bistro

Trio target April 14 for opening

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Habib Howard, left, is a guard at Toledo hospital, Mike McKarus is a chiropractor who has been in other family enterprises, and Mike Howard has a law degree and ran Gatorz Bar & Grill on Bancroft Street. Habib Howard, left, is a guard at Toledo hospital, Mike McKarus is a chiropractor who has been in other family enterprises, and Mike Howard has a law degree and ran Gatorz Bar & Grill on Bancroft Street.
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Within three hours of closing a deal to take over two restaurants and a banquet center at The Docks on Friday, the new owners had torn out the wrought-iron staircase inside the former Navy Bistro, opening up customers' view to the river and city outside.

By the weekend, workers were painting walls in new colors and taking apart kitchen equipment and scrubbing it clean. The lower three feet of the awnings that hung over the riverfront windows were chopped off, again to capitalize on the view.

"We want to give it a modern, fresh feel with more light," said Mike Howard, general manager of what is to be renamed Admiral's American Grille.

Mr. Howard's brother Habib and their first cousin Mike McKarus, operating as The Docks Venture LLC, plan to have the restaurant open to the public on April 14. They also are reviving the adjacent Courtyard banquet center and have its first event booked for April 9.

Mike Howard said the owners are in talks with three local Mexican restaurant chains interested in running an authentic Mexican restaurant in the former Tango's next door. "We'd like to time the opening with the opening of [Admiral's American Grille]," he said.

On Friday, The Docks Venture LLC signed a 25-year lease on the properties with Dashing Pacific Group Ltd., a U.S. corporation formed by Chinese investors Yuan Xiaohona and Wu Kin Hung. On the same day, Dashing Pacific closed a $2.15 million deal to purchase the riverfront restaurant and entertainment complex from the city of Toledo.

The restaurants and banquet center that were owned by local restaurateur Tom Cousino have been closed since Jan. 6. At that time, Mr. Cousino owed the city $99,000 in back rent. He also owed Genoa Bank some $750,000 for the shuttered properties and their contents -- a liability the new owners have assumed, Mike Howard said.

"To redo what's here would cost a lot more than $750,000," he said. "The bank did their homework to make sure they got someone in here who can make this work. We were the best candidates for not only the Chinese, but for the city and the bank."

He said the business proposal began developing about two months ago during conversations with Marty Sutter, Genoa Bank president and chief executive officer. The Howard family had worked with the bank on previous business deals, he said.

"We expressed interest; he expressed interest," Mike Howard said.

Mr. Sutter could not be reached for comment Monday.

The new partnership admittedly has limited experience in the restaurant business.

Mr. McKarus, 43, a licensed chiropractor from Sylvania, said he worked as a chiropractor in Columbus for seven years before becoming a partner with his brother Mark in Orchard Hill Home Builders for seven years. He said that about three years ago he began working with the same brother in an import business.

Mike Howard, 33, who has bachelor's and master's of business administration degrees from the University of Toledo, also received a law degree from UT but never sat for the bar exam. The admissions committee of the Toledo Bar Association rejected his application to take the exam because of a misdemeanor criminal record and an honor-code violation in law school -- a decision the Ohio Supreme Court upheld in 2006.

He said he worked in the family business, the American Petroleum gas station chain, and at Gatorz Bar & Grill on Monroe Street before opening a Gatorz on Bancroft Street in 2006. Mike Howard said he ran Gatorz on Bancroft, which had a full kitchen and featured live entertainment, until selling it in 2008. Until recently, he was the auction division manager of Real Living Realty in Columbus.

His brother Habib, who also has worked in the family's businesses, is a security guard for Toledo Hospital and an auxiliary Lucas County Sheriff's deputy, Mike Howard said. Habib Howard made headlines in 2004 when he shot a robber who had pointed a gun at him at the family-owned Howard's Carryout on Monroe Street.

The Howards' father, Herbie, was at the new restaurant yesterday but said he was only there lending a hand. He has "zero" involvement in The Docks Venture LLC, he said.

Mr. Cousino also was talking with the new owners Monday, helping them figure out the mechanical systems at the businesses he ran for 15 years.

"I'm excited for them -- still a little sad but excited for them and excited for Toledo," he said. "This will be something new and some new energy. They're down there working hard and tearing things apart."

Mr. Cousino, who still owns Cousino's Steakhouse on Woodville Road, said he didn't think the partners' lack of restaurant experience was an issue.

"I think that if you have a good sense for business and you treat people nice, I think they have a real good chance of being successful," he said. "It's a beautiful space."

Michael Gibbons, president and chief executive officer of Ann Arbor-based Main Street Ventures, which owns the Real Seafood Co. and Zia's restaurants at the The Docks, said his company put together a plan to take over the former Navy Bistro and adjacent banquet center, but Genoa Bank ultimately chose to do business with the Howards.

He said his main concern at this point is seeing the restaurants reopen.

"It's in everybody's best interest that it's successful," Mr. Gibbons said. "I've got a big investment down there. I want to protect my investment."

While Mr. Gibbons said his company planned to invest $500,000 to $750,000 to redo the space, Mr. Mc- Karus declined to put a figure on what he and his partner are investing in the former Navy Bistro and Courtyard banquet center. They are helping with "the grunt work" now, he said, and plan to continue doing so in the future.

They anticipate having an "American bistro" type of menu with no entrees over $20. They want the restaurant to be something everybody in the area can afford and will want to return to often.

"We're going to focus on three things," Mr. McKarus said. "Quality, consistency, and affordability."

Mike Howard said he plans to book live entertainment -- blues and jazz bands -- in the Courtyard banquet center on evenings when an event isn't booked.

"We're trying to widen the appeal," he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.



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