Jeff King of St. Augustine, Florida, works at the first car dealership in the nation to expand and include a popular restaurant franchise that’s now serving 6,000 diners a week just six months after opening.
“We have an F-150 beer list available,” he said. “That’s 150 beers, 40 on tap.”
Patrons walk to dinner through the Bozard Ford Lincoln dealership or enter from a separate entrance for a juicy Black Angus burger, chicken wings, gluten-free salmon salad, homemade meatloaf or shrimp and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese.
While Ford’s Garage is an established hot spot near Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, that’s not where it all began. Four entrepreneurs came together to set up the first Ford Garage in 2012 in Fort Myers, Florida, with no affiliation with the automaker.
Yet the interior and exterior of the restaurant spotlights classic Ford cars and car parts.
It’s like a Hard Rock Cafe for automotive junkies.
When Ford lawyers came knocking on the door of Ford’s Garage in 2014, the restaurant group embraced the opportunity to build the brand together and signed a licensing agreement in 2016.
Now, the restaurants have expanded to a total of 15 locations, including 13 in Florida and one in Noblesville, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, and four more under construction. They’re planned for Cincinnati, as well as Sarasota, Winter Garden and Daytona, Florida.
The Dearborn location opened in 2017. And that’s where King, vice president and general manager at Bozard Ford Lincoln, fell in love with the idea.
He decided that his initial idea to open a steakhouse to attract Lincoln customers should be revised. The cool place that offered family friendly comfort food with a full bar should be more relaxing and casual.
Ford’s Garage St. Augustine opened on Sept. 24, during the coronavirus pandemic with seating inside and out, plus carryout service. Business has thrived.
Bozard is likely the first of many dealers to expand into the restaurant business.
“We’re getting significant interest from dealers around the country,” said Marc Brown, 51, of Tampa, Florida, chairman of the board and a founding member of Ford’s Garage.
“While we have no current conversations with dealers in Michigan, I believe that’s ultimately coming. It’s our plan and we will execute a significant expansion throughout Michigan. We want to work with local Ford dealers to the extent we can.”
The restaurant group has a licensing agreement with Ford Motor Co. for the name Ford’s Garage and to sell Ford’s Garage retail, as well as retail associated with other Ford trademarks.
Few northerners may know that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had winter homes in Fort Myers, and businesses down there trade on the iconic names, Brown said.
He credits King with the brilliant expansion idea.
“Jeff tracked me down and found me,” Brown said. “His vision, passion, enthusiasm has been off the charts incredible. It’s greatly exceeded our expectations, the sales volume. We’re probably doing 30% more volume than I anticipated. This deal has certainly opened our eyes to great potential.”
King hoped it would drive potential customers onto the massive 20-acre property. He converted a former Gander Mountain sports store into new offices, a new service center, a luxury Lincoln showroom, The Bird’s Next day care for 43 children of employees and the restaurant.
The dealership is the restaurant’s landlord, plus owns a minority stake in Ford’s Garage. Profits fund employee bonuses now, King said.
“If someone eats here one time a month or once every three months, it’s more than they’re going to their car dealer,” he said. “The restaurant has its own parking space out front. Nobody from our company is going to whistle at you and say, ‘We have F-150s for no money down.’ If you went to a restaurant and walked out with a business card stuck under your windshield, you would not come back. We realized from the very beginning, that was a thing.”
King expected to do 4,000 meals a week, not 6,000 — with a capacity of 160 seats indoors and 60 seats outdoors in sunny Florida.
He has expanded hours to include breakfast, so Ford’s Garage is open every day, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and later on weekends. With nearly 300 employees at the dealership, the menu of breakfast burritos, breakfast sandwiches and smoothies are a welcome addition.
“I had never eaten yogurt before in my life. I’ve never, ever had it,” King said. “And I have it every morning now when I get here. It’s crazy.”
“Dad rock” songs by artists such as Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles stream from the restaurant into the dealership, he said.
John Ramirez, 53, accepted a promotion elsewhere and returned to his role as a Bozard sales associate. “It’s just like a family vibe,” he said. “We have customers come over while they’re waiting to be seated and they’ll look around and come back for a spin afterward.”
When Ramirez eats at Ford’s Garage, customers often treat him. “The first three times I walked in the door, I didn’t pay for my lunch. The atmosphere is great. It brings a different vibe to our whole area.”
Chip Osborne, 52, owner of Nations Bus Sales, a commercial bus dealership directly across the street from Bozard, said he welcomes Ford’s Garage after working 10 years in a food desert.
“I’ve got 15 employees. Until this new restaurant was opened, they had to leave this area and drive 7 or 8 miles away … just to get fast food,” Osborne said. “There’s an RV dealership next to me, then a Harley-Davidson, Cadillac down the road. We’re all along I-95, the main freeway that runs the length of Florida. If you’re driving into Florida, and who isn’t these days? You’re going right by.”
But area employees aren’t the only ones eating at Ford’s Garage.
Meridith Strout, 43, a small business owner from St. Augustine who drives a 2020 Lincoln Navigator, goes to Ford’s Garage for date night as well as lunch with kids.
“We went there for a birthday party, 30 of us for a dinner,” she said, praising the unusual car-themed decor. “They have vehicle parts all over the place. The napkins are cloth wrapped with a vehicle clasp. I like how they tie-in parts of the vehicle with your eating experience. We got onion rings for appetizers and it was displayed in an oil funnel. I see my neighbors at the bar. Everybody just knows everybody, and you hang out.”