Karen Dennis might be one of the few neighbors The Weekly Newspapers ever met that begrudgingly relocated to the Florida Keys.
In 1975, Karen’s mother, on the heels of a divorce, packed up her two kids and moved south from Watertown, New York to Marathon, Florida. Just shy of her senior year in high school, Dennis left behind her lifelong friends.
“I was in the 11th grade when we left,” she said. “Of course I didn’t want to move here!”
Shortly after completing her high school studies through home schooling, Karen took a job at the Army Navy Eagle Supply store selling surplus camouflage clothing and boots, military fatigues and outdoor and camping gear.
Shortly thereafter, she took her first waitressing job before eventually purchasing her first food truck that marked the beginning of her business career.
Karen whipped up sandwiches and grilled hot dogs and sausages each day to sell to hungry construction workers around town in the early 80s. She remembered when the traffic became increasingly thicker along the then two-lane road, and she was forced to park her truck to wait for roads to clear after lunchtime.
“I got to be really good friends with the health inspector,” she laughed, remembering the frequent visits due to a flood of complaints from local restaurant owners who felt her little sandwich truck was cutting into their business.
In 1984, Karen partnered with Mike Cinque to purchase The Stuffed Pig restaurant.
Her sandwich truck is barely visible to the unknowing eye, parked just off the highway adjacent to the front door. It’s covered by vines and bougainvillea that make the garden dining space so charming, and according to Karen and Mike, that’s where the truck will remain.
Twelve years ago, the county asked the business owners to move the truck citing it as being illegally parked.
“Now, that truck’s never gonna move as a matter of principle just because the county said we have to,” he laughed. “I still pay for all the proper licensing each year to keep it in compliance.”
“The Pig” as it is known by locals, is decorated with nearly three decades of swanky swine souvenirs in every shape, size and color.
One of the most famous and most recognizable porkers has worked his way up to The Stuffed Pig’s official mascot and diplomat. (Willie B. Bacon)
After she and her loyal staff close the restaurant mid-afternoon, Karen often heads to The Hurricane Bar & Grill to catch one of her favorite things – horse races on television.
Of course, since she works eight days a week and the Keys aren’t overflowing with horse tracks, she plans her semi-regular vacations based on which horses are racing at what track. And she’s been to nearly all of them – Churchill Downs and other tracks in the Triple Crown to her favorite spot on the West Coast, San Anita.
Home to one of the sport’s most famous horses, Sea Biscuit, as well as the Breeder’s Cup, Karen said San Anita is the one track that’s marked in ink on her vacation schedule each year.
“The only days I have off are the days I leave town,” she laughed as she shared breakfast with her business partner and employee, Dr. Sherri Van Houten, who picks up shifts at The Pig on the weekends when she’s not seeing patients in her office at Middle Keys Chiropractic.
Sherri laughed at the recent influx of lottery players who began visiting the restaurant to ask Karen to bless their tickets following her stroke of luck.
“People think she’s lucky,” Sherri said. “They were coming here and asking her to rub their tickets. They didn’t even know her!”
Karen’s friends, customers and community leaders all agree that it’s clear her success has been due to hard work and dedication to her business.
“You wanna know her secret to success?” Mike asked. “She loves what she does!”
This weekend, The Stuffed Pig is gearing up to host three days of speedy swine races that will culminate with The National Pig Day celebration on Sunday. In years, past monies raised from the event went directly towards scholarships for graduates of Marathon High School. But last year, with the resurrection of the annual celebration, Karen decided Grace Jones Community Daycare Center would be the best beneficiary. The Stuffed Pig presented the center’s board with a check for $26,000 last year, and with excitement building for this year’s event and community support pouring into the event, that amount is only expected to grow with this year’s event.
Willie B. Bacon
Halfway around the world in pictures taken by thousands of seasonal visitors to the Florida Keys, Willie B. Bacon has been standing tall as The Stuffed Pig’s Public Relations Ambassador for quite some time.
Upon his arrival, The Marathon Weekly sat down with Willie to hear his story…
The product of Sara Lee’s finest swine, Willie shortly fought the pressure to go into the family business because he simply doesn’t look good sealed in plastic.
While fattening up on the farm, Willie wooed his gaggle of farm animals and was instrumental in orchestrating a coup d’état.
“The animal farm ran great for a while,” said Bacon. “But our little society broke down shortly after Clinton took office.” Bacon went on to explain how a slump in the pork belly market divided the farm, and when he was chased off the farm by a pack of dogs with socialistic tendencies, he moved to California.
He then spent the next few years in Silicon Valley climbing the corporate ladder with a computer software company whose profits soared during the technology boom of the 90s.
“Then, the market screwed me again,” he said sadly, and Bacon found himself broke and living out of his ’92 Ford Escort.
Penniless and destitute, he entered a period of intense self-reflection. He realized his one true joy was sparked during a dive trip while entertaining software clients.
“So I packed up my Escort and headed south,” he said. “When I arrived in the Keys, I thought, ‘This is what it is all about’.”
Mesmerized by the turquoise waters and friendly people, Bacon stopped at Hog Heaven for a Rueben and planned on following Flagler’s path all the way to the Hog’s Breath Salon in Key West.
Fortunately, his Escort broke down in Marathon, and Bacon wandered into Stuffed Pig restaurant where co-owners Mike Cinque and Karen Dennis realized they had found the front man the restaurant had always been missing.
“Willie B. is hardworking and he will bring the bacon home,” Cinque said.