Pam Schmidt has been the front desk manager of Mangrove Mike’s Cafe for nine years. A friendly blonde with a big smile, she’s often the first face that customers see upon stepping inside the eatery. And there’s one question that many ask: How are you and the staff doing?

“We’re improving daily,” she told Keys Weekly, with a sigh. “Like other folks in the world who have lost someone. We pulled our shorts up to make him proud and be there for the community. Other days, we wait for him to walk out of the office.”

After server Jacqualyn Sanchez’s son Tristan, left, was assaulted, Forster insisted that she bring him to the restaurant every day until he felt safe. CONTRIBUTED

Mangrove Mike’s was owned by County Commissioner Mike Forster, who died from COVID-19 on Sept. 6, 2021. A life cut off suddenly midstream, he was juggling many projects: his duties as an elected official; his membership on the boards of nonprofits including United Way of Collier and the Florida Keys, Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition, MARC and Islamorada Chamber of Commerce; his missions to Uganda; and his cherished hobby, fishing.

But the anchor of his career was his ownership of Mangrove Mike’s Café and Catering, which he opened in 1998 in Islamorada at MM 82, bayside, just before he started his many civic duties, including serving on the local Village Council. Yet somehow Forster managed to be ever present at the restaurant despite his many responsibilities. His leadership created a strong bond among his staff of 30, who call each other family.

His death, like that of any patriarch, was a profound loss for his restaurant family.

“Our morale is up and down,” said server Jacqualyn Sanchez. “Most of us expect him to walk in the door. But it’s just such a fun place to work. Especially now, we stick together and have each other’s backs and make him proud.”

Susanne Bloy is the manager behind the scenes — though, as she described it, “I have no title. Bookkeeper for 24 years. I’m part of the family. He left me in charge of his business affairs until they are settled.” 

Forster inspired loyalty as a boss: kitchen staff Fany Mendoza, left, and Noel Martinez worked at Mangroves Mike’s for 17 and 24 years, respectively. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly

Bloy remembered first meeting Forster when he worked as a manager at Islamorada Fish Company. “I trained him,” she said with a laugh. “He was a good kid, good guy. We hit it off.”

They hit it off so well that when he bought the business that would soon be Mangrove Mike’s, he told Bloy he wouldn’t do it unless she came with him.

“And we’ve been together ever since,” she said. “I’m staying strong because that’s what Mike would want. And if I’m not strong, the girls aren’t. I stay upbeat all the time.”

A focus for Bloy is continuing his nonprofit foundation, Mangrove Mike’s Endeavors Paying Forward. She is currently putting a board together. The goal of the nonprofit is to “give to the local people who need it.”

Billy DePaula, seen here, of neighboring DePaula Jewelers, created this memorial wall at the restaurant. DePaula had Forster’s longtime license plate, “PHISHIN,” framed. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly

His calling to give back to the community was strong during the devastation of Hurricane Irma. Front desk manager Schmidt recalled that Forster gave a pep talk to his staff: “‘You cannot wait for the government to take care of us,’ he said. We fed the FWC, all police and fire rescue, Homeland Security, the Department of Forestry. … It was a mass production. A minimum of 1,500 meals a day came out of that kitchen, going from Key West to Key Largo. He never took no for an answer and would find a way to do it.”

Forster also jumped into action during the pandemic. Mangrove Mike’s Endeavors began at the start of COVID-19, creating a mechanism for donations to provide food for those in need, first responders and healthcare workers, while also arranging for deliveries to be made by others or himself. 

But server Sanchez’s favorite memory of Forster is how he connected with her son and with the many children who came to the restaurant.. 

The front of house staff feel like family: front row, from left: Joel Cavo, Elisa Calvo, Jacqualyn Sanchez, Audrey Butler and Josie Ortiz. Back row, from left: J.J. Calvo, Josh Calvo, Pam Schmidt and Jeanne Hobson. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly

“When my son Tristan was 14, he was assaulted. He came to work with me every day,” she said, tears freely rolling down her cheeks. “Mike supported him coming with me to work for six months so he would feel safe.”

Sanchez paused to wipe her face. Then her face brightened at another memory. 

“When a kid would cry, he would walk over and say, ‘What happened? Did your mom tell you you’re going to Chuck E. Cheese?’” she said, laughing. “He treated people like he was their best friend. People would come in and say, ‘He was my best friend.”

For more information about Forster’s foundation or to make a donation, go to Customers can also come into the restaurant to buy a Mangrove Mike’s Endeavors shirt. Proceeds from the shirts go toward the foundation. Mangrove Mike’s is located at 82200 Overseas Highway, Islamorada. Phone number: 305-664-8022.

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines;; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.