Chris Zwirn, Owner of Bull Creek Fish Camp, spent the bulk of his life in a suburb of Atlanta before moving to Flagler County in 2006. He’d been working in restaurants since the age of 15 and the move to Florida was an opportunity to run and develop new stores for a company that owned and operated several fast food chains. After becoming the youngest District Manager, Zwirn partnered with two friends to open their own chain restaurant in 2012. When a county-owned building on a lake in western Flagler County was up for lease, Zwirn saw it as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“The building was in the middle of nowhere, but it was on a beautiful lake and we saw an opportunity to do something different than your typical beachfront restaurant,” Zwirn said. “We presented our concept and business model to the county and we won the bid. Fortunately for us, the county did a lot of the restoration and repair work to get the space ready. By June 2014, we were open for business.”
Zwirn shared that an early challenge was understanding his customer base and what they wanted. The original idea was to have a chalkboard menu where customers would order from and the food would be brought to their tables. Since then, the restaurant has turned into more of a casual dining concept with servers and menus at each table.
“We also originally envisioned the restaurant as more of a destination,” Zwirn said. “The population of this area is about 1/10th of the county. It’s very rural with mostly farmers and ranchers. We knew we’d have plenty of local business, but also envisioned people coming from other parts of the county. That hasn’t happened as much, but we have become a destination for those fishing for Speckled Perch.”
Bull Creek Fish Camp sits on Dead Lake, one of the best Speckled Perch fishing lakes in the entire Southeast. According to Zwirn, the first five months of every year sees an influx of fishermen staying at the nearby campground, eating at his restaurant and utilizing his bait and tackle shop.
“January through May is a busy time for us,” Zwirn said. “Lots of out-of-towners. We do the bulk of our business during those first five months.”
For Zwirn, the growth of the restaurant has come down to word-of-mouth and a ‘guerilla marketing’ approach. “So far, we haven’t sunk a lot of money into traditional advertising,” he said. “You look for a four to one ratio on your return on advertising. If you’re not getting that, it’s not worth it. For us, social media has been key.”
It’s well known that operating a restaurant is not easy. In fact, nearly 60% of restaurants fail within three years of opening. Fortunately for Zwirn, his experience, passionate approach to running a restaurant and commitment to the community has, so far, resulted in six years of success and happy customers.
“I really enjoy the people,” he said. “I get to meet people from all over the place. To have an opportunity to chat with someone and to provide them with great food and service is very rewarding. Knowing we can brighten their day and make a difference is the best part of this business. We also enjoy being a part of this community.”
Looking ahead, Zwirn is focused on increasing sales, but also stresses the importance of doing the right thing. For Zwirn, this means treating employees and managers with compassion and providing a place for locals and traveling anglers to gather and enjoy delicious seafood, sandwiches and traditional Southern fare.
What advice does Zwirn have for aspiring restaurant owners? “If you think you know what you’re doing, go back and revisit it. What you think you know and what you actually know are not the same. Learn everything you can about what you’re getting into. Talk to other entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, and managers that deal with the financial aspect of owning and running a restaurant.”