China Coast

Tampa, Florida (Spring, 1995)

The China Coast restaurant construction project was the ultimate test of my carpentry and construction management skills.  I was the carpentry foreman on the project, in charge of 15 workmen, with skill levels ranging from very-experienced carpenters to entry-level laborers.  Some of the more experienced carpenters worked on projects as unique as Disney World and the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando.

China Coast Restaurant

China Coast - Tampa, Florida

I moved from Texas to Florida to build the China Coast, along with my boss and two other carpenters.  We hired the additional eleven carpenters and helpers after we arrived in Tampa.  I qualified as construction foreman on the project because I had built this restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas and another one in Dayton, Ohio.

As relatively small construction projects go, restaurants can be quite challenging because of the special framing required for plumbing, electrical, stoves, ovens, fry pots, walk-in coolers, HVAC, and other more specialized commercial restaurant equipment. 

This restaurant's basic wood and metal structure was, in essence, a box-inside-of-a-box design.  The inner walls of the kitchen, walk-in cooler, storage, and office, defined the size and shape of the inner box; the outer walls of the restaurant defined the size and shape of the dining area.  The higher walls of the inner section supported the top end of the perimeter roof rafters, while the lower, outer walls supported the low end of the rafters.

This restaurant had many carpentry complexities that included several various sized laminated beams, a wrap-around deck with railing, copulas, site-built window frames, a multi-pitch roof, and a free-standing tower in the front of the building that functioned as a shelter over the main entrance.

China Coast Restaurant - Dining Room
China Coast - (unfinished dining room)

This fast-paced construction project took about five months.  Planning each day's work was tough - matching up the day's tasks with the crew's various skills.  I split the crew into carpenter/helper teams and assigned them to the jobs that needed to be done that day.  I gave the finish and intricate carpentry work to the experienced carpenters, and the production work, like building walls and decking roofs, to the carpenter/helper teams that enjoyed seeing the physical results of a hard day's work.

As foreman, I served as single point of contact for all construction decisions, interpreter of plan details, master builder, boss, and big brother to the entire crew.

A typical day at the China Coast began at 7am.  I usually arrived on the jobsite about 6:30, filled my coffee cup from my thermos, and strolled around the project to check on the progress of each team's work.  When the crew arrived, we began rolling-out the tools to prepare for the day.  I visited each team to answer any questions about anything they were working on, and to make sure they were staying motivated to get the job done (so that I could assign them to the next task). 

Around mid-morning, my boss would arrive with some take-out breakfast for the project superintendent and I.  The three of us would talk about the overall progress of the project, labor cost, supplies needed, and what we were going to do for dinner that evening; us out-of-town folks sort of hung-out like family in the off hours. 

After breakfast, I would make my rounds again.  I visited with the electricians, plumbers, and painters to make sure that there wasn't anything that I was planning that would be in their way, or if there was anything that I needed to build so that they could stay productive.

At lunch, the crew would find shade inside the building and enjoy a sack lunch.  One of the last carpenters I hired, was an older gentleman from Boston.  During the interview, I asked him how much he wanted to get paid and he said,  "At de end o de day, if ya don't like my work, you don't gotta pay me nut'n!"  How could I turn down an offer like that?  He turned out to be a great carpenter and fun to work with - he had a superb memory for old jokes.

China Coast Restaurant - Kitchen
China Coast - (unfinished kitchen)

After lunch, I checked on all of the teams again to make sure everyone was happy - carpenters are not productive unless they are happy (I suppose that applies to everyone).  When I had time, I would work on small projects that I could complete in an hour or two, like hanging doors, or installing baby-changing stations.  I wanted to keep my projects small, so that if I suddenly needed to refocus my attention on something bigger, I would not be leaving some large task half finished.

At the end of the day, I rewarded the crew (and myself) with an ice chest full of cold beer.  After a day of building structures in the hot sun, it felt good to relax and spend informal quality time hanging with the crew.   

China Coast Foreman (me)
The Last Day

Though almost completed, sadly this restaurant never opened.  The owners decided to discontinue the restaurant chain.  The day we got the news, the truck carrying the China Coast sign arrived - it seemed to slow down, but not quite stop, before exiting the parking lot with the sign still strapped to the flatbed trailer.

It has been over 20 years now.  I've lost track of all of the people I met and knew during my short time in Tampa, Florida, but I hope they all learned something valuable, are living quality happy lives, and have fond memories, as I have, while building the China Coast

~ Matt

China Coast Restaurant Closing - 1995

Darden to close its China Coast restaurants - 1995

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