Snappers Oceanfront Restaurant and Bar is one of Key Largo’s best-known hangouts, and when news broke that it was mostly destroyed by September’s Hurricane Irma, patrons local and abroad mourned.
Its docks and seawalls were torn away and the inside dining area and kitchen were overtaken by flood waters. More that 160 truckloads of debris were hauled away by the time the initial cleanup process was said and done.
Word was Snappers, 139 Seaside Drive, was gone forever. It was even announced on CNN because correspondent Bill Weir was a fan and customer. He’d filed a story from there days before Irma plowed through the Keys Sept. 10.
But through the determination of management and staff, less than a month later, the oceanfront eatery and watering hole was up and running, albeit while having to adapt to the conditions the Category 4 storm left behind. The kitchen was inundated by surge, so owner Peter Althuis moved in a food truck for chef Camellien Octela Jr. and his staff to cook out of.
The famous Turtle Club bar was swept away in the ocean but the outside bar immediately adjacent to the dining room was quickly rebuilt. The indoor dining room was still not completely ready for patrons, but outside by the water was. Althuis started out days after Irma passed grilling up burgers and dogs for those who ignored warnings to evacuate ahead of the storm.
Before long, Octela and his cooks were churning out orders from inside the food truck off a full lunch and dinner menu, as well as a Sunday brunch.
Still, without the kitchen, Turtle Club and inside dining room, Snappers isn’t even running at half its potential. Althuis was hoping to get the main restaurant’s dining room and kitchen up and running by Christmas, but he’s run into somewhat of a permitting nightmare. He submitted an application for an emergency permit to get started on construction more than a month ago and he’s still waiting for approval.
“All the time, it’s something different,” Althuis said about each time Monroe County inspectors come out to the restaurant off mile marker 94.5. “We need that. A day later we need this. A damage assessment. That was last week’s story.”
But county officials say it’s not so simple and that they’ve been working with Althuis and telling him what needs to be done. Christine Hurley, assistant county administrator, said the main building is in worse shape than Althuis believes it is.
“His main building is damaged way beyond 50 percent based on our analysis,” Hurley said. “Our staff has been communicating with him how that works. He is able to provide us an appraisal to demonstrate that our value is wrong, but once he does go through that process and it’s still damaged beyond 50 percent, he is going to have to build beyond the elevated flood zone.”
Althuis said he has no problem rebuilding up to county code, and in fact, after the massive damage caused by Irma, he plans to go beyond what is required.
“I want to go above code,” he said. “I never want to see and experience that again.”
Hurley said her staff is holding an internal meeting today to specifically discuss Althuis’ case “to coordinate what the issues are so he gets one list of items.”
Althuis said the waiting is killing his business. He estimates he’s bringing in about 30 percent of the revenue he typically earns during this time of year. And it’s not just Althuis who’s suffering. During the off season, Snappers employs from 70 t0 75 people. During season, staff is as high as 90 people, Althuis said. He’s keeping on 41 employees now but in reality, he only needs about 25. Pretty soon, he may have to start laying people off.
“That’s about 85 families, and a lot of them are already living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “I do whatever I can, but I can only do so much.”
He already bought most of the building materials and equipment to get started, “even impact windows,” but he said he continues to deal with county inspectors’ ever-changing demands. Nevertheless, he was anticipating county officials, wanting tax revenue generated by businesses running at full capacity, would be more cooperative working with proprietors trying to get up and running following the massive natural disaster that was Irma.
“I’m very disappointed. You would expect after a natural disaster, they would do everything to support businesses and do whatever is necessary to help us, but they don’t.”
Don’t forget Key Largo
When talking about the hit Irma delivered in the Upper Keys, people mostly bring up Islamorada. That’s fair. Most of the four-island incorporated village’s major hotels and resorts were knocked out of commission by the storm and could stay that way through the season. The Islander Resort? Closed. Cheeca Lodge & Spa? Closed. The Post Card Inn Resort & Marina? Closed.
That’s hundreds of employees out of work for the year’s money-making months, and that’s hundreds of hotel rooms not being slept in by tourists looking to spend cash at bars, restaurants, area attractions and on charter fishing boats. This is going to be a tough season for those living and working in the Village of Islands.
But while Key Largo made it through Irma much more intact, it too faces a season of uncertainty. A major contributing factor is the Hilton Key Largo Resort on the bay side of mile marker 97. According to a statement put on the resort’s Facebook page, the buildings and property suffered significant wind and water damage.
“At this time, we are closed as we assess the damage and scope of this natural disaster,” the statement reads.
When the property reopens — scheduled for sometime in the fall of 2018 — it will do so under a new name: Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo. The hotel will be part of an upscale collection of Hilton hotels branded under the “Curio Collection,” said Katherine Rouse, an account executive with the Edelman public relations firm, which represents the Curio Collection.
The impact of the Hilton being closed through season will be felt throughout Key Largo, said Elizabeth Moscyniski, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce. Combined with other, smaller, but popular resorts, like the Ocean Pointe Suites off Burton Drive in Tavernier, being closed for the season, Key Largo lost about a quarter of its hotel and motel capacity due to Irma, Moscyniski said.
“We are looking like were are at 75 percent of our hotels up and running,” she said.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204