King Cantina fights to keep its monarchy

In September 1998, Tony Polito struck a deal he thought would allow him to expand his restaurant, King Cantina. Instead, he was forced to move out of his successful location on West Market Street in Highland Square.

He sold his recipes and the license to the existing restaurant to a new owner, and sought out a new location in Canton or Cleveland to grow his business.

Shortly afterward, the new Highland Square owner was approached by the popular Aladdin’s Eatery chain, which wanted to sublease the property. The money was right and the licensee sold out to Aladdin’s, leaving Polito with a problem.

Instead of branching out and building on the King Cantina name, he had to rescue his reputation and his clientele.

“There’s a lot of people competing for dining dollars today,” Polito says. “If we would have gone six months without taking care of our customer base, they would have been somebody else’s customers. We’d have to win each one of them back, so that’s one of the reasons we really put the pedal to the metal and got going on this project.”

To keep his current customers, Polito knew he had to re-open an Akron-area King Cantina. Otherwise, he would have to throw away the years it took to accumulate an almost cult-like following for his southwestern cuisine.

In shopping for a new West Akron location, Polito realized it would take at least three months and $500,000 to reopen. So he went to the Castillos family, which owned the El Charro Restaurant on Route 303 in Hudson. He had spoken to them in the past about taking over the El Charro location, but now it was urgent and an agreement was quickly reached.

“We were lucky the architectural integrity of the building really worked for what we wanted to do,” says Polito.

With the need for major renovations removed by moving into what was already a Mexican restaurant, Polito and crew went to work painting, expanding the lounge, adding a mini bar and changing the seating. They opened the new King Cantina in 30 days.

This is impressive, but Polito faced numerous problems with the premature move.

First there was the problem of hiring and training staff. About one-fourth of the Highland Square staff made the move with the company, but the original restaurant sat 40 people and the new location seats more than 200, causing a jump in staff from 12 to 33. It took about two months to train employees while the new restaurant was operating.

Then there was the more complex problem of the short notice of the move and the lack of time to inform customers.

“People tend to think, when they drive by and they see a place gone, that they simply went out of business,” Polito says.

Given more time, Polito says he would have used signs to promote the move. “But we didn’t even know where we were moving. Everything happened so fast,” he says. “Unfortunately, in a lot of situations with businesses, that does happen — God forbid, a fire or flood or disaster of some sort. People don’t have a contingency plan in place to move a business and I don’t think there’s any school you can go to to learn that.”

To counter the effects of the move, for the last two months the old location was open, Polito and his crew collected business cards and names and addresses of patrons to serve as a mailing list for the grand opening of the new location.

Once the new location was established, Polito placed ads in local newspapers at different times for a month and purchased 1,500 advertising spots at the local movie theater, but he says, “There’s only so many dollars you can spend in advertising.

“Not everybody’s reading the paper that day. People are visiting, people are on vacation, people are traveling on business. Unless you’re putting that ad out every week for a year, it’s a tough thing and there’s lots of cost involved.”

The grand opening brought in more than 700 people, a mixture of new customers, area business people, people involved in the renovation and old customers the restaurant contacted through the addresses collected. Unfortunately, the grand opening success in no way meant the King Cantina had retained its old customer base after moving to an adjacent city.

“I get 10 people a week, if not 20, that come in this restaurant and say, ‘We had no idea where you went, we thought you went out of business,’” Polito says.

To add to the troubles of reaching people, when Polito licensed the rights to his old location, he allowed the new owner to keep the phone number, thinking the restaurant would remain a King Cantina. Aladdin’s continues to inform customers calling for the King Cantina of its new location and phone number.

Polito’s wife, Joanne, discovered another problem facing old customers trying to locate the business. By dialing phone information sources such as (330) 555-1212 and 411, she discovered that AT&T was telling people the restaurant did not exist. After several calls, she thinks she has finally resolved the problem.

All in all, King Cantina has survived the move. The restaurant retained many customers and attracted new ones. Polito had the advantage of moving into an existing Mexican restaurant, and although the food is quite different, Polito and his crew at least have the chance to take over El Charro’s business.

Polito says his restaurant is beginning to earn the respect of customers in the new area, but he is also getting ready for his next advertising blitz to try to reach more of his old customers.

From the trials and tribulations of moving his business, Polito imparts this wisdom for other owners: “Think of the things that may happen and be ready in case they do happen. We don’t know when a landlord will sell a building. We don’t know when a right of eminent domain will come. We don’t know when a roadway’s gonna be torn up for six months or two years, as it happens.

“There’ve been many a good business that have gone out of business purely because circumstances out of their control forced them out of their location. If you have a good business, I think it would be a prudent thing to keep your eyes open to possibilities or contingent plans in those situations. These things come up without warning.”

Making the move

Being forced into a hasty move was a learning experience for Tony Polito, owner of King Cantina. These are some of the things he did, or would have like to have done, to make the move more successful.

  • Keep a list of your customers and their addresses so if the unforeseen happens and you are forced to move, all of your customers can be notified.

    n Retain your old phone number and forward calls to your new one. After the move, check all information sources to make sure they are giving out your new number.

  • If time allows, put a sign out notifying customers of your move. Advertise before you move.
  • Maintain relations with the new tenants of your old location to ensure they pass along information of your move.
  • Have a contingency plan.