Keeping island restaurants afloat through the pandemic
A lot of us are looking forward with anticipation to a time we can eat, drink and be merry out in public again. Most restaurateurs didn’t plan on takeout being a major portion of their income bu like everyone else, they’ve had to adjust to a new normal just to survive.
If islanders are to find their local favorite eateries alive and kicking at the end of this, now is the time to show them support by ordering something to go and then high-tailing it home.
Larry Morton of the Ragged Ass Saloon said he is managing to keep his head above water with takeout and advertisement. He said pizza is the calling card for his restaurant right now.
“We’re putting out a lot of pizza specials,” said Morton. “We’ve come up with a frequency takeout card that allows people to order five times and get the sixth one free.”
Morton said they’re maintaining a focus on quality customer service with the staff they have, while adhering to current rules and regulations.
Many people, he said, don’t understand why they aren’t allowed to eat on the premises. He admits this is a tough thing to deal with in particular. He wants everyone to know that it’s certainly nothing personal, but a temporary regulation to a problem that is hopefully coming to an end sooner rather than later.
With takeout being quadruple it’s normal business, it’s likely the way most restaurants are able to keep the lights on and the doors open.
“Overall sales have suffered,” said Morton. “This started right in the midst of the tourist season so we’ve fallen off maybe 85%.”
According to Morton, the restaurant has only been able to keep a third of the normal staff. He said many people come in to see and support their favorite server and the generosity of customers has been remarkable, even surprising to him. Under its licensing, Ragged Ass Saloon is allowed retail sales of liquor as long as it’s uncapped and unopened at the time of the sale.
Morton said customers buying a six-pack or a bottle of wine to go with meals is helping tremendously right now.
“There are a lot of us doing the takeout to offer service,” said Morton. “Local support to island restaurants and businesses is really critical at this point. If you have your favorite restaurants on the island keep it on the island.”
The Ragged Ass Saloon is at 3421 Stringfellow Road, St. James City; call 239-282-1131.
Capt’n Con’s has been an island favorite for many years. The owner, Loretta Williams, said she’s had a couple of employees who failed to come in at all since the pandemic began, adding that the cooks and kitchen staff have basically maintained the same hours and when it comes to the staff being down, it’s really just the waitresses.
“You can’t have the dining room open so you really can’t use four or five waitresses,” said Williams, “especially when you never know if you’re going to have 10 people or 60 people.”
Takeout orders have picked up immensely since the beginning of the social distancing orders and Williams said she’s satisfied with what she’s doing because she’s not closed. In fact, she said as long as she can stay open, she’s happy.
“The islanders have really stepped up,” said Williams. “Some come maybe three to four times a week. I have regulars that eat a certain thing on a certain day and they come and order that.”
Williams said it’s unfortunate the phone system is not what it should be, and there are times people complain about not having been able to get through, when the phone never rang. She said she doesn’t mind people calling her cell phone if that happens and she will notify the restaurant staff if she isn’t there.
Taking advantage of the situation, Williams has used this time to replace the floors in the front room and bathroom. She’s most thankful for everyone’s patronage through this harrowing time, as she said, when you lose a month during season it can kill your business.
“Thanks for supporting us and helping us to stay open,” said Williams. “We depend on the islanders. In the summertime, they’re the ones who keep us going.”
Capt’n Con’s is at 8421 Main St., Bokeelia; call 239-283-4300 or 606-669-9978 (Loretta Williams/owner cell)
Romana Gavrinev of Froggy’s is managing to keep her head above water despite her staffing being down quite a bit. She said her takeout is not surging the business forward like it is for some.
“Some days we make money,” said Gavrinev, “but it’s not much – nothing to brag about. It’s just enough to pay the employees for being here.”
Gavrinev admits the meager income being made right now is not even enough to cover the electric bill. She said she feels good that she is able to provide something for the community and also a few hours to keep some employed.
Gavrinev said she believes islanders come out for various reasons, adding, some are likely tired of cooking themselves and others are coming to help support the staff and restaurant.
Trying her best to offer variety, she said prime rib will be among favorites topping the menu. Froggy’s is another establishment licensed to sell liquor to go, which helps greatly, since the bar area of every restaurant is taking an enormous hit during this crises, which has not stopped her from offering Beacon Bites Program meals to help island seniors.
“I would like to tell everyone that I really appreciate their support,” said Gavrinev. “I want to thank everybody who comes here and calls, the people who get food to go. Hopefully, this will all be behind us soon, and we will get back to our normal lives.”
Froggy’s is at 3620 Stringfellow Road, St. James City; call 239-283-3773
Bert’s Bar & Seafood Grill
Bert’s Bar & Seafood Grill in Matlacha is quieter than usual, without its live bands and calypso magic on the deck. Bernard Johnson said his staff has dwindled down to about half of what it was before the pandemic restrictions. He said he’s experiencing quite a bit of support from the local community and regulars. The daily specials have been an asset for food and drink sales, he said.
He said they will do whatever they can not to lose the base crew they have working, as some of the employees have been at Bert’s for 15 years.
“We have a number of people who will eat right there in their car, or they’ll park somewhere else and eat,” said Johnson. “We have our regular customers and then we have people who are supporting us because we’re open. The servers are making good tips and the people are so nice.”
Johnson also said it’s amazing how cooperative people have been about the restrictions, which allows the staff to get the food out rather quickly. Under its licensing, he said they are allowed to sell specialty drinks people often would not make at home, such as Margaritas, as long as they have a cover when sold.
It’s difficult to compete with places like groceries and convenience stores when it comes to alcohol sales, Johnson said.
“There have always been a lot of bumps in the road,” said Johnson. “But this is a huge one. Hopefully we’ll get over it quickly, however it’s going to take time. It’s not gong to happen overnight – until we get a vaccine I would think. In the mean time, people can support the local businesses and the local workers – people who’ve been on the island for decades.”
Bert’s Bar & Seafood Grill is at 4271 Pine Island Road, Matlacha; call 239-282-3232
Little Lilly’s Island Deli
Although Little Lilly’s Island Deli is no stranger to takeout, even it has seen a surge in the meals offered to customers.
“Takeout was a big portion of our business to begin with,” said Lilly, “so that part of it is about the same, but we’ve been selling a lot of our pre-made dinners.”
Among some of Little Lilly’s grab and go meals, which are portioned out for two, are shepherd’s pie, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, lasagna rolls and some vegetarian and healthy options as well as what Lilly calls comfort food. She said people are certainly tired of their own cooking, and the customer lines are a combination of that and the small amount of socializing that can be done while they’re picking up their food.
“We definitely have customers who are coming in more often than they usually do,” said Lilly. “And I think a lot of that is because they want to support us.”
She went on to say that her experience is that everyone who walks through the door is thankful, positive and generous. Little Lilly’s has been trying to help those who find themselves out of work, and now the Bobby Holloway Foundation has also funded some of Little Lilly’s efforts by sponsoring free lunches to any unemployed non-essential worker. Lilly said in one day there were close to 20 people fed by this effort.
“We are so thankful to live in this community,” said Lilly. “We have been offering free sandwiches to restaurant workers who are out of work and the community has really stepped in. I’m just really happy to be a part of this community. Customers come in who are not only supporting us but also wanting to support other people who are unemployed. If we’re going to go through this crisis, this is the place to do it.”
Little Lilly’s Island Deli is at 10700 Stringfellow Road, Bokeelia; call 239-282-9264.