Chaska has begun its search for a new operator of its Town Course Grille, hoping to continue the restaurant’s recent success as a steady contributor of revenue for municipal golf operations.

Chaska native Charlie Panacopoulos has run the restaurant since 2008, but at 66, he’s ready to retire. “This is a very consuming business in terms of energy,” he said, adding that it’s not unusual for him to put in 14-hour days in the seven months the restaurant is open.

The city began advertising for a new operator early this month and contacted five local restaurant companies. The City Council expects to select an operator this fall.

Panacopoulos was new to the business when he won the contract, his interest piqued by his home’s location overlooking the 11th hole. “I was embedded in the culture of this community and the course itself,” he said.

Panacopoulos believed the restaurant wasn’t living up to its potential as a dining venue for nongolfers as well as golfers. “It was such a lovely spot, with a beautiful vista,” he said. “I thought it could be just a great place for the community to come and hang out.”

He put together a business plan with the help of longtime friends Jimmy and Charlie Theros, who own and operate St. Paul’s St. Clair Broiler and Rudolph’s in Minneapolis. He got a full liquor license. He also expanded and improved the menu, adding items like walleye and barbecued ribs.

Panacopoulos said about 70 percent of his business now comes from nongolfers, compared with only about 10 percent when he took over.

“Now it’s really more of a full-service restaurant, a place where people in the community can come and have a nice dinner and drinks,” said Assistant City Administrator Jeffrey Dahl.

Sales have grown steadily, even increasing in 2013 and 2014, when the number of rounds played at the course fell below 30,000 — a key performance benchmark for the 18-hole course.

The rise in sales has benefited the city, which gets 10 percent of the restaurant’s gross revenue under its agreement with Panacopoulos.

A tough time for golf courses

Like many courses, Chaska’s is operating in a tough market due to the decline in the number of golfers. New Hope’s was the only one of 17 metro-area municipal courses with operating profits in 2013, according to the most recent report on city finances by the state auditor.

Financial figures for the Chaska course from 2014 and this year aren’t available yet, but the city has projected small profits, including increased revenue contributions from food and beverage operations. Course Manager John Kellin said that as of mid-August, 24,500 rounds have been played, putting the course on track to meet or exceed its goal of 32,000 rounds.

Dahl said Green Mill Restaurants was among potential operators contacted for the golf course job. The St. Paul-based company will operate a Crooked Pint pub-style restaurant in the new city-owned curling center complex set to open this fall.

Under that agreement, Green Mill will pay the city 7.5 percent of the restaurant’s gross sales. Dahl said he expects the new golf course restaurant operator to have an arrangement similar to Panacopoulos’, paying about 10 percent of gross sales.

City leaders aren’t insisting that the new operator keep or change the current concept.

“We’re kind of waiting to see what we get,” Dahl said. “We think that Charlie’s enterprise really improved overall service and made the Town Grille what we want it to be.”