Yellow Dog Eats, Gotha’s charming restaurant, known for its quirky decor and creative sandwiches and wraps, celebrated its 20th anniversary.
With space for only 12 seats when he opened in what used to be the old Gotha Country Store, Yellow Dog Eats owner Fish Morgan never expected his small, casual cafe to grow into the successful restaurant it has become.
Twenty years have now passed since Yellow Dog Eats — located at 1236 Hempel Avenue in Gotha — first opened for business in 1998.
The family-owned restaurant invited the community to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a party Saturday, Nov. 10, and even received a visit from Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who announced the restaurant will be the first in Orange County to receive a permit allowing customers to dine with their dogs in outdoor-seating areas.
After purchasing the property and investing in a few renovations, the Morgan family converted the former country store into a small café and antique/interior décor shop called Lee Morgan Inc.
But as the popularity of Morgan’s restaurant grew, so did the need to expand. Morgan even opened a second location in New Smyrna Beach four years ago.
“At first, it was mixture of antiques and gifts, and then it also had my cafe,” Morgan said, recalling Yellow Dog’s early days. “Slowly but surely, as I grew the restaurant, I kept going, ‘Hey, we need some more seats,’ and so we would take something out, and now we’re at about 75 seats.”
Morgan, a Windermere native who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, initially operated his own café on Park Avenue in Winter Park in a leased space. The business quickly outgrew the small space, and he decided to move his gourmet sandwich shop to Gotha when the opportunity arose.
“After I graduated in ‘94, I decided I wanted to do something small, so I opened up on Park Avenue in Winter Park in ‘95,” he said. “I loved it. It was a little tiny store, and it had standing-room-only inside and a little deck out back where you could sit. I was there for about two years. And then my parents ran into (Realtor) Suzi Karr, and that’s when I moved out here.”
The move baffled some, given Gotha’s isolated location and suburban vibe, he said. But Morgan was hopeful it would all work out.
“When I first moved out here, especially after having been located on Park Avenue, people thought it was insane, because Gotha was still seen as the country,” Morgan said. “It was a big difference, for sure, but I grew up in Windermere, and I just had faith in the customer, and I always was sincere about what I was doing. I didn’t really think about making money at the time — I just loved doing what I was doing.”
GROWING IN GOTHA
Although the restaurant’s unique name, Yellow Dog Eats, wasn’t Morgan’s first choice because he feared people would think he was selling dog food, it eventually grew on him, he said.
The idea of the name stemmed from a combination of his love for dogs, a painting his family owned, and their former golden retriever, Scarlett.
“I named the place Yellow Dog Eats because my parents are both very artistic people, and they collect artwork, so we had this abstract painting of a yellow dog that we loved,” he said. “And we also had a golden retriever named Scarlet. And so it became the dog on our logo because we bought the rights from the artist. Now it seems so normal, but 20 years ago, there weren’t a lot of places that had such obscure names like that.”
Despite the obscure name and residential location, his business thrived and even survived the recession and three fires — one of which forced him to close for nine months in 2008 to repair all the damage at a cost of $4,000. He credits much of the restaurant’s success to the community’s support for local business.
“We’ve been lucky to be in a residential community, and I’m thankful for having such great neighbors,” he said. “Everyone’s really been incredibly gracious to me and supportive, and that’s nice, because Orlando used to be very big on chain restaurants. But people really take the time now to support local businesses.”