Family-owned businesses are cautiously weathering the storm of today’s precarious economic climate, and Brass Monkey owner Judy Sorenson is single-handedly working to continue her father’s legacy.
Judy’s parents, Bob and Mary Jane, mid-westerners who eventually made their way to the warmer climes of South Florida, were raising their brood of six in sunny Fort Lauderdale. Judy described her father as the consummate salesman with a patient and warm personality, and shortly after he purchased a modest beer and wine bar in Fort Lauderdale, the family received a flyer in the mail advertising the sale of a bar in the heart of the Florida Keys.
“My dad always loved it down here in the Keys, surrounded by the water,” Judy remembered.
On December 10, 1979, Bob purchased the bar and package store that, typical of many Keys establishments, had already changed hands twice since it opened in the earlier part of the decade.
At 14, Judy began working in the kitchen of her parents’ bar in Fort Lauderdale. Her father regularly made the trek back and forth between Marathon and Fort Lauderdale over the course of her teenage years. She laughed as she remembered one of her first trips behind the wheel with her father at her side in the passenger seat.
“Before we left Fort Lauderdale, he was already asleep,” she remembered. “It was dark before we left, and I remember driving over all the old bridges coming down through the Keys. Every time I saw a truck coming in the opposite direction, I’d just hug the side of the bridge and hold my breath and pray.”
Just one year shy of her high school graduation, her parents decided it would be easier to simply move their youngest child down to Marathon and focus on their established bar and package business.
“I know, thanks mom and dad!” she laughed of her parents’ decision.
Clearly, though, she has no regrets.
Nearly all of her brothers have done stints behind the bar, counter or stock room at the Brass Monkey, but it’s been Judy who has kept the family business, well, in business.
“My dad passed away 13 years ago, and people just assumed the Monkey would be closed because he was gone,” she said.
After high school, Judy was headed to nursing school. Love got in the way, and her first boyfriend became her first husband. As her parents looked toward years of retirement and easy living, they purchased an Air Stream trailer and traveled across the country. For the months that they were on the road, Judy was left in charge of the bar.
“If I could handle it for the four or five months they were away, I knew I’d be able to keep it open after he passed,” she affirmed.
Her father’s death not only set the course for her future, it changed her spiritual life as well.
In the final days of his life, the Sorensons called on the newly hired pastor at San Pablo Catholic Church to come read Bob his final rites.
“We knew that night that he didn’t have much longer,” she remembered. “He passed in the night, and I went to mass the next day. Father Gerry had said when he read my dad his last rites that if we needed anything to let him know. I told him we needed to organize a funeral.”
Judy said she was never a staunchly devout Catholic, but she’s not missed a service since then. She even regularly volunteers her time as a lay reader during services.
After devoting the majority of her life to the Brass Monkey, Judy considers herself blessed to have a wonderful staff in place at the bar as well as the package store.
“I’m not here as much as I should be anymore, but it does make me available to take care of my mom,” Judy admitted. “She is truly my best friend. I wish I had half of her memory and smarts.”
Her pride and joy are her four-legged children, Ludwig and Sabbel, two German shepherds aged seven and one and a half years old respectively.
“My dogs are my babies,” she laughed.
It’s clear her dedication to the family business has carried the establishment through to its 30th year, but the Monkey’s success is also attributed to her solid employees that serve the loyal customers day in and day out.
Long time friend and employee, J J Starr, said Judy takes care of her employees as if they were family.
“She never cuts shifts in the slower time of year,” J J boasted. “She can do every job in here, but she works to keep us on.”
“I love this place,” Judy said. “It’s been good to me. The Brass Monkey’s nothing fancy, just a great local place.”
Under the twinkle of the Christmas lights, Brass Monkey owner Judy Sorenson, second from left, attributes a large part of the bar’s success to her long-time employees. Pictured (l-r) are Mary, Nancy and J J, who hold down the fort during the day.