Toula Amanna: Chapter 3 Reinvention….
May 17, 2023
There is an old Greek Proverb: “People make plans and God is laughing and amused..” The business plans that Toula Amanna made Before COVID-19 (BC for short as they refer to the changing world in Toula’s Company), has now adapted to a new world full of opportunity and reinvention.
She is still a student at NSU, in her Master’s class, she has been going to College for 42 years, just as long as she has lived in the USA since she arrived at the age of 17 from Athens, Greece.
And just like the saga in the movie (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), there is a next Chapter more thrilling than the previous one:
Recently she wears a Construction hard hat when before she wore a different hat for the many different life roles she had: Entrepreneur, Mother, Wife, Student, Mentor, Teacher, Chef, Restaurateur, Landowner. Over the past few decades, the dynamic Toula Amanna has been all of these things, and many more. The rags to riches story of a poor, young immigrant girl who came here from Greece in 1979 has changed to include a number of lucrative Real Estate Parcels in the four major Downtown areas of Hallandale Beach, Davie, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, all Hospitality related and over 250 current Employees. The legendary 24-hour Flashback Diner chain in three locations has survived 33 years of financial cycles, Hurricanes, COVID-19 and now Reinvention.
“I have a surplus of vision and ambition,” explained Toula, “and I’ve never been afraid of a hard day’s work. I still get jamming on the cook’s line and serve customers just for the fun of it because of the customer and employee interaction that I enjoy so much.” With a staff of hundreds, however, the need never does. In fact, her role as a job creator in her beloved adopted country is among her proudest achievements. “It takes a large team to make this operation work,” said Toula. “I put a lot of faith in my employees, from servers to executives. I’m delighted to say that they reward that faith with outstanding performance.”
The company’s strength was put to the test during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which saw local restaurants failing left and right. As Toula said, “Very few locally-owned chains survived those first two years. Thanks to great planning, attention to detail, and the ability to rapidly adapt, and the help of the USA Government moving fast to fund businesses, we not only made it through the Pandemic – we thrived.”
In partnership with the Town of Davie and the local CRA, beloved Mayor Judy Paul, the Visionary Council members, Town Administrator the brilliant Rick Lemack and CRA Director Philip Holste, Toula transformed two more buildings into renovated workable restaurants, now 3 in a row, spanning 3.5 Acres, former LUMS into the area’s premier Diner, attracting throngs of devoted customers ranging from old-time locals to the ambitious young students who make up an ever-increasing percentage of the Davie community. Two more projects are her own: What was once a McDonald’s has been transformed into Sweet Alchemy Confectionery, a from-scratch bakery; and a former Wendy’s will soon be reborn as Bótano, a quick service Mediterranean restaurant. “Bótano reflects my deep love for the food of my homeland, although the menu goes well beyond Greek,” said Toula. ”Our development team has come up with something really special, and I’m excited to bring a touch of Mediterranean flavor to downtown Davie.”
“The Hospitality Industry has evolved dramatically to fit an active, healthier lifestyle that caters to an audience that wishes to host events everywhere and anywhere: At their Home, at the Parks, in the streets as well as other private venues. The All American Diner is transforming and we are redefining it,” she said. “Palates evolve along with society. Meatloaf and gravy now sit side-by-side on the menu with free-range chicken with Roasted Veggies and quinoa, and eggs and bacon are being replaced by more Vegan and Gluten-Friendly dishes like veggie-filled power omelets, Avocado Toast and yogurt-Berry Granola bowls.” But the allure of a 24-hour restaurant never fades. Said Toula, “No matter what, people still want comfort food and a taste of home and they want pancakes at 4 AM.” These days, Flashback Diner Davie shares the street with a host of fresh, mixed-use developments and new businesses that popped up in the wake of Toula’s innovation. She says: “Block Party, get ready!”
In the current red-hot South Florida Real Estate Market recent years this highly valuable Real Estate that Toula owns have become part of each City’s Downtown vision plan and very much sought after by Developers and Equity Firms and the pressure is mounting for Toula to come up with a new plan for her land in favor of what each City wants to see: “Town and City Governments want to create, for the benefit of the residents, walkable Downtown areas that not only are comprised of brand new buildings with common areas and gathering spots, but also fill the need for more Affordable Housing utilizing the new directives and incentives set by the State of Florida for example, via the newly signed SB 102 Bill. Each City wants to keep costs and taxes down for its residents and to replace the old infrastructure of sewer systems, electricity etc., with new, cutting-edge underground utilities while encouraging Green, LEED Certified Construction Elements in the new mixed use buildings.
Toula is in alignment with the vision of each City and is currently working on proposals and discussions to team up with credible, good companies and to find good solutions as to how to accomplish the relocation of the existing restaurants so that no jobs are lost, and no downtime of the existing decades-old restaurants. She will not stand in the way of growth, but the search is difficult and the proposed plans vary greatly. “The current recession and high interest rates have created a volatile market that few credible developers can now navigate and complete projects successfully. The downtown properties I own in Hallandale Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Davie, and Boca Raton have now become the target of developers from all over the United States,” said Toula. “In their quest to acquire land, some of their practices have been rather covert and underhanded, rather than the direct communication we enjoyed in times past.” Toula is not against selling or partnering up with a credible developer, if that is the right thing for the local community. “I would never stand in the way of progress,” she said. “At the same time, I will always be a businessperson, and if we ever leave a location we need to be compensated in a way that would allow us to relocate our business and employees.” Some of Toula’s properties are listed on LoopNet in search of just such a partnership. “There is a way for everyone to get what they want,” she said. “All it takes is HONEST and DIRECT COMMUNICATION, the right deal for the right location, resulting in progress, increased business, and community-building. It’s the American way.”
These past three years there were a lot of false rumors regarding Toula Amanna and her businesses that no one can explain how they originated. She said, “Inexplicably, during the COVID-19 years, as all kinds of rumors surfaced, I was subject to 12 different government and regulatory audits, mostly originating from the State of Florida.” For example, two missing digits from the Federal I.D. Number for Flashback Diner Hallandale triggered an eight-month long Workman’s Comp Insurance State Audit covering 11 companies and 265 employees. Labor Audits, an IRS Audit for the Fort Lauderdale property that the IRS agent could not reply as to why they generated neither a random or for-cause audit, 40 violation notices for the same property that had such incredible details as missing two inches from the back yard grass and the list went on and on. Toula continues: “In the beginning of COVID-19 my Social Security Number was changed at the National SBA Level (I used to be a spokesperson and small Business recipient for many years of SBA loans teaching others how to use these great 504 programs to renovate buildings and put people to work). Since two digits of my SS number was in discrepancy with the National SBA Database, I could not get emergency funding EIDL Loans for the first 3 months of COVID-19 until a great, honorable person at the SBA found the problem and fixed it.” Three years of audits proved that Toula kept impeccable records, with no changes found at the end. “It was three years of a complete waste of time for my staff, my employees, and the government, not to mention taxpayers’ money, hard to believe all this was coincidental, and very sad to see it happening,” said Toula.
Among these restaurants there is a favorite spot, a restaurant she leases and she does not own: The Deerfield Beach Café at the International Fishing Pier. She went all-in on the Deerfield Beach Café, part of a massive overhaul of the city-owned property adjacent to the historic International Fishing Pier. In 2013 Toula was awarded the lease of the restaurant at the International Fishing Pier. Since then, the Deerfield Beach Café has become a favorite of locals and visitors alike, with more than a thousand Google reviews praising the “great” service and “super delicious” food served at “the most beautiful spot.” In turn, Toula praises the restaurant staff, led by General Manager Santos Melendez, as well as the community leaders who have supported the café over the years. “When it opened, the Deerfield Beach Café represented the greatest partnership between public, private, and community organizations of my career,” she said. “In the 10 years since, I’m proud to say that Santos and many other staff members have become more like family than employees, both to me personally and to the people of Deerfield Beach.”
There are other benefits to owning a business in such a beautiful location. “All of my other restaurants are land-locked. Every time I’m at the Café it is literally a breath of fresh sea air,” said Toula. She is even house-hunting in the area. Do you know of a place with a boat dock? Deerfield Beach as a future home best reflects Toula’s new lifestyle: BBF: Beach, Boat, Friends. Toula’s kids are all in College, might as well go for the South Florida lifestyle as reflected by the slogan of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance in which she continues to be a Board Member and a Business Member: “Live in the Sun, Work in the Cloud.”
Toula has traveled a long, successful road over the past decades, with help from countless people. “I couldn’t have made it without friends like Rochelle Matza, a business director and guiding light for so many of my efforts, and Julio Izaguirre, my top chef for 25 years. Together we participated in multiple Community events through direct and indirect contributions for catering and gift giving. This past weekend we participated in the annual Lauren’s Kids Foundation at the Hard Rock with Senator Lauren Book and her father, Ron Book, both great motivational speakers that have brought awareness and light to so many issues that people could not talk about before. These events had simply stopped during COVID-19 and it was a welcome opening to the new era of bringing Communities together for the benefit of all.
“There are so many more people I want to mention, but that would be a whole book!”
Toula’s work is far from over. Even now, the next exciting chapter in the life of Deerfield Beach Café is about to be written. As a city-owned property, the restaurant has been reopened to bids from interested parties, as required by the original contract. Of course, Toula’s hat is in the ring – and it’s a very big hat. While the detailed plans are under a “cone of silence,” another favorite Toula phrase, she did say this: “We have a truly outstanding concept that we can’t wait to share with the people of Deerfield Beach.” If it is anything like the many other projects Toula has shepherded over the decades, it’s something to look forward to. Fresh ideas came from the Greek Islands and Athens where Toula will be for about ten days this summer. On July 27, 2023 in Downtown Athens Greece she will receive the award for achievement for Immigrants, women, who have excelled in the International arena both in business and as Community contributors.
Stay tuned, there will be a next Chapter….