By CHARLOTTE TWINE
Can you imagine finally reopening your beloved restaurant business after seven years of struggle, only to be hit with a history-making pandemic? That’s exactly what happened to the team behind Calypso’s Seafood Grille in Tavernier.
But not only are they beating the odds of surviving the nationwide trend of small-business closures, they are thriving.
Calypso’s chef, Todd Lollis, said, “We want to thank everyone for supporting us. People would get takeout and leave us a $100 tip. It left tears in our eyes.”
Owner Bron White agreed. “I can’t believe how wonderful people treated us in the pandemic,” citing just one example last week of a customer leaving an $8 tip on a $15 check. The customer told White, “We have to keep our little guys going here.”
All the “little guys” who run businesses have had quite the odds to surmount in 2020. “As of Aug. 31, 163,735 total U.S. businesses on Yelp have closed since the beginning of the pandemic,” according to Yelp’s recent “Local Economic Impact Report.”
White attributed their loyal fan base to “quality food.” “My father’s a nutritionist. Eating a cheeseburger should not be a death warrant.”
Calypso’s popular burgers are made from grass-fed angus beef and rolls that are specially imported from Canada because they have just five ingredients, with no chemicals or preservatives. White said she makes an effort to source exceptional products to create their dishes. Her mantra is, “’You are what you eat, so don’t be fast, cheap, easy, or fake.’ And that pretty much sums up what I do.”
This isn’t White and Lollis’ first go at running Calypso’s. They originally operated the 130-seat eatery in Key Largo at MM 99.5, at the flashing light by the Key Largo Fisheries, from 1995 to 2012.
“We were a hidden gem with water access,” said Lollis and White’s daughter, Shelby Lollis. “That restaurant was my childhood.”
Shelby pointed out that she handed out menus with her twin sister, Charly, at age 3, and worked all the way up to running fish fries. “Sunday was the day to jam out to Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix,” she recalled fondly, pointing out that both servers and customers were family.
And those long-time Calypso’s customers are ecstatic that the family is back, even if it is in a more intimate setting. The new restaurant is at MM 91.5, bayside, in a little strip mall with 28 seats rather than the old 130, and a 15-item blackboard menu rather than a five-page one. The small size and small staff — just the three of them — has actually helped with the reopening’s success by keeping overhead small. Just take a look at a recent Yelp review: “For those of us who were fans of the old Calypso’s in Key Largo, this is the best news that has come out of quarantine! … The (she) crab soup is absolutely the very best in the whole universe!”
When the family lost the original Calypso’s, “It was devastating. One of the saddest moments of my life,” said Todd Lollis.
White remembered sadly, “We didn’t fit in with the plans of development of the basin, so they terminated the lease.” “They,” according to White, was the Chicago conglomerate that was the money lender for Cay Clubs, a development company that was their last landlord.
After the closure, White tended the bar and kept her eyes open for the perfect location to reopen Calypso’s. The search was a challenge, as she had to wait for a restaurant to go out of business and/or a location that Monroe County would approve for permitting.
But finally, in January 2020, “We got the band back together,” said Todd Lollis with a huge smile. “We turned the ovens on and bam, they started coming. We were kicking butt off the bat.”
This past Saturday, which happened to be Halloween, Shelby was dressed as Minnie Mouse and took lunchtime orders at the takeout window at a steady clip, and cheerfully and efficiently served customers at the tables, all while cheering on her Liverpool Football Club game that was running over loudspeakers. Meanwhile, Chef Lollis was churning out tuna tacos at the grill while wearing huge Mickey Mouse ears. “I forced him,” Shelby said with a laugh.
In addition to the She Crab soup and the burgers, the tuna tacos are a fan favorite. Seafood is an area of expertise of Chef Todd’s, and on that Saturday his specials included a hogfish reuben for $15.95, a lemon basil hogfish entrée for $23.95, and a Shogun tuna dish with wasabi peas and cream cheese for $20.75.
Shelby is the baker. She made her dark chocolate, caramel, and pecan cupcakes called Cobra Bites for the dessert special at $7 each, proudly noting how dense each cupcake was with gooey frosting goodness. “Yeah, baby,” she said, nodding her head.
Shelby and Todd were clearly having fun running the joint on Halloween, with Todd strolling out to share with customers his passion for Ray Charles in between making orders, and also emphatically making sure that dearly departed friend and former server Shellaine West got the credit for the idea to put tuna tacos on Calypso’s menu.
As always, the conversation turned back to the customers and staff being one big family. Shelby observed that dynamic contribution to the secret sauce behind their success: “It’s the love. Love always has to be there.”
Calypso’s Seafood Grille is cash only and located at 91940 Overseas Highway in Tavernier, bayside. Hours are Thursday through Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. 727-520-3685. Takeout or dining-in available.