For a brief moment in the spring of 2000, Michelle and Joe’s eyes met in the office of Half Shell Raw Bar. The next day Joe was training Michelle behind the bar at the popular restaurant, and they worked really well together. “I knew there was possibly something good in our future,” Joe said.
For almost five years, they kept their relationship under wraps, but it all worked out — they’ve been married since 2005. “Now pretty much everyone knows we’re married, but occasionally a seasonal guest we’ve known for years or a new employee will pull one of us aside and say, ‘I didn’t know you two were married,’” he said.
Between the two, they have 35 years of experience at Half Shell Raw Bar, an anomaly in a town filled with comers and goers. But the turnover rate at the historic seaport landmark is probably the lowest on the island. Three of the other bartenders — Rick, Walter and Sandy — have each been there for more than 30 years, with other staffers averaging 10 to 20 years.
“We owe it to the original owner Paul Tripp, who built the restaurant with quality food and service, and an incredible atmosphere,” said Joe, mentioning the managers who have fostered those values and the team who forged a customer base that continues today. “Our staff always maintains a positive vibe that permeates through Half Shell.”
Joe and Michelle say the best part about working at Half Shell is the family of employees who were recently adopted by the current owner Pat Croce. “He restored the faith and passion of working for one of the best raw bars in the country,” said Michelle. “As a staff, we’ve experienced everything from births to graduations, weddings to hurricanes, renovations and even deaths. We always pull together for each other like brothers and sisters.”
The second best part, they agreed, is their customer base. “They smile and treat everyone good,” said 20-year patrons Stan and Cheryl of Joe and Michelle during the recent Kentucky Derby Party. “The whole staff is friendly, fast, and personable.”
As far as changes over the past couple decades, the eatery has more ceiling fans and added AC to the sailfish room, and the old beer cooler has been replaced. “The town gets busier year round, but we’ve stayed pretty close to our roots,” Joe said.
Michelle and Joe have some advice for young bartenders starting off in Key West: It’s not about how much you make, it’s about how much you make it home with.
Joe and Michelle’s go-to drink is the “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere,” made with a blend of flavored Cruzan rums like coconut and banana, and frozen rum runners, made from the original Islamorada recipe. They also insist patrons try an oyster shooter for the authentic Half Shell Raw Bar experience. “Just try it, you have to.”