Red Baron's restaurants perk up downtown Orlando

Meet the Red Baron of Orlando: Bob Snow, skywriter, balloonist, and entrepreneur.

He has been responsible for the renovation of a solid block of downtown Orlando. His restaurant complex, Church Street Station, has become the fourth-largest tourist attraction in Florida and the fifth-largest restaurant in the country in only eight years.

''Bob Snow has been a catalyst in the renaissance of the downtown area,'' says Mayor Bill Frederick, adding, ''He's helped to bring a '24 hour' feeling to Orlando.''

There is no doubt Mr. Snow stands out, even in a community full of developers , promoters, and entrepreneurs. He stands out not just because of his handlebar mustache, or ostrich-hide boots, but also because of his unique ways of promoting his establishment. For example, he owns his own private air force, called Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus, consisting of two skywriting planes and two banner-towing biplanes. They often glide over Disney World, much to Disney's consternation, extolling Rosie's and persuading some of Disney's 14 million annual visitors to spend some of their money in downtown Orlando. In another airborne promotion, he lofts visitors in the early morning hours above Orlando for $80 each in one of his five hot air balloons.

Some of his more down-to-earth pursuits include a collection of antique automobiles, which cruise around Orlando, and his own collection of antique railroad cars. (Snow, in fact, lived for several years in a 1913 Pullman car once owned by the president of Southern Railroad.) And soon the Orange Blossom Special, which used to rocket down the tracks from New York to Florida, will sit on the same siding as his own steam locomotive.

The antiques and artifacts all have a purpose: to get people to Rosie's. And they work. Last year, 1.2 million people streamed through Church Street Station, spending $9.5 million to listen to Dixieland jazz in a cabaret setting, to dance to disco and country and Western tunes, and to eat.

Rosie's has been so successful that in the past six months Snow has had requests from Baltimore; New Orleans; Houston; Dallas; Denver; San Diego; Columbus, Ohio; and Knoxville, Tenn., to duplicate Rosie's in their downtown districts.

''They send a prospectus, a bank president, and the head of the chamber of commerce,'' Mr. Snow said in an interview in Lili Marlene's Aviator's Pub, one of the restaurants in the Church Street complex. Snow, however, sends them a letter with a polite but firm ''no.'' He says he is not interested in expanding beyond Orlando at the moment - although he might possibly build a Rosie's in New Orleans in time for the 1984 World's Fair to be held there.

He is, however, expanding in Orlando. At a cost of $3.5 million he's building another complex directly across the street from Rosie's. It will open in June, a year behind schedule, and will seat another 1,600 people.

The main reason it's running late, says an employee of Church Street Station Inc., Snow's privately held company, is Snow's exacting standards, especially when it comes to blending antiques into his buildings.

The new complex, for example, will have stained glass dating from 1885, glass , bronze, and oak sliding doors from the original Lloyd's of London, and canvas backdrops from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. What he hasn't been able to find in antique shops he has created in his own mill shop, which employs 15.

In similar fashion, he has festooned Lili Marlene's with such antiques as chandeliers from both the First National Bank of Boston and St. Joseph's, an Episcopal cathedral in Buffalo.

Snow came to Orlando by chance. He was flying his skywriter to Pensacola, where he had already set up a Rosie O'Grady's, but had to land in Orlando because of fog. He took a cab into the city and started looking for an old section of town to erect another Rosie's. He eventually found a run-down neighborhood, bordered by a freeway on one side and a crumbling business district on the other.

Today, he has $10 million invested in the area. But he says he has no intention of expanding to the other side of the freeway into the predominantly black area of the city.

''Look what's happened to Gaslight Square in St. Louis, Old Town in Chicago, or Underground Atlanta. You can't put tourist attractions in a ghetto,'' he says.

To control his complex, he has one entrance, charges a $4.75 admission price, and has a patrol for his 900 parking spaces.

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