At some point in our lives, many of us have served a shift or two behind the bar, but only the truly dedicated, talented and thick-skinned have the gumption to make a career of it because being a bartender is so much more than just pouring drinks. These folks also serve as therapists, matchmakers, taxi-dispatchers and occasionally marriage counselors – all while entertaining large groups of often impatient and demanding patrons for hours on end. But those who do have the temerity to tough it out say they can’t imagine ever doing anything else. With that in mind, the Sand Paper started a new series in 2015 to introduce our readers to some of the island’s popular cocktail creators – many of whom have developed legions of regulars who consider them part of their family. The following are highlights of those we’ve profiled so far:
The Lighthouse Island Resort Tiki Bar’s Shelly Erion didn’t blink when we asked her to be the first bartender we profiled, and she was happy to share with us her love of all things bacon and some funny stories about her 20 years in the business.
“I was born in Florence, Kentucky,” she said. “The most famous thing about Florence, Kentucky is the water tower that can be seen from Interstate 75 – it says ‘Florence, Y’all’ – so when people ask me where I’m from that’s what I tell them.”
Shelly – who has been behind the bar at the Lighthouse for four years – was inspired by fun afternoons hanging out at the old Jimmy B’s on the beach (Jimmy B’s was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004) to quit her corporate job and never look back. Her favorite drink to make is her signature rum punch ‘with a twist’ and she spends her time off being an adrenaline junkie – running in triathlons to raise money for cancer foundations.
Kristen Nelson’s smiling face has greeted patrons at Parrot Key for a year and a half, after changing careers from hairstylist to bartending – something she says better suits her creative energy and enthusiasm.
“My old boss at the salon had another business helping people with parties, so she sent me to school to be a bartender,” Kristen said. “We made it into a side business when we weren’t doing hair, and I gradually became a bartender full time.”
With her bubbly personality, Kristen found the camaraderie and convivial atmosphere of serving drinks in a paradise setting a perfect fit. Her favorite drink to make is something that personifies that popular song, “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” –the ‘Permanent Vacation’, a blend of Southern Comfort, coconut rum and peach schnapps with pineapple and cranberry juice.
The reasons why people decide to move to our emerald shores are as varied as the grains of sand on our beautiful beaches. For Lancaster, Pennsylvania native Steve Weaver (but he’s not Amish!), the reason was simple – fishing. To pay the bills when he’s not fishing, Weaver tends bar downstairs at Matanzas on the Bay.
Steve told us that he worked in the car business for many years, and first started tending bar kind of on a whim. That whim turned into a weekend gig that turned into a dream for him and his wife – moving to southwest Florida.
“I mean, for someone who loves to fish, can you imagine anyplace better than Southwest Florida?” he said. “We talked about it for years – walking away from the car fleet business and following my dream, so my wife – who works for a worldwide company – got permission to move her home base and we up and did it last year. We moved to Fort Myers!”
Steve is always at Matanzas’ beautifully remodeled downstairs bar and many of his customers are regulars who come for happy hour (daily from 3-6pm) or people who grab a drink or two before they eat. The most popular drink he makes? A fitting one for waterside eatery – a Key Lime Colada.
After awhile, some things just seem meant to go together. Peanut butter and jelly. Macaroni and cheese. Deb and the PierSide. Indeed, since Time Square institution the PierSide Waterfront Grill & Famous Blowfish Bar first opened its doors back in 1996, Deb Prock (she was Browning back then) has been behind the bar.
“We first opened our doors on October 28th, 1996,” said PierSide Managing Partner Marty York. “The restaurant that was here before us was called Pier One, and had a real crazy party animal reputation. We wanted to change that image to family-friendly, so we did a total and complete remodel.”
About that time, a young bartender from Sanibel was enjoying a day off on Fort Myers Beach and contemplating leaving the service industry for a teaching gig. She wandered into the PierSide after she heard it was about open and that the owners are great to work for, and the rest is history.
“After 19 years, I still like doing this so much that I don’t want to have to do it too much,” Deb told us, laughing again. “Every year it’s one more season.”
What many people may not know about Jane Ribbink, the smiling face behind the bar at the Fish Monger’s beautifully appointed Hurricane Hole, is that she holds a degree in culinary arts and that she actually created several of the desserts on the popular eatery’s menu, along with some of their specialty drinks.
“I lived most of my life in Iowa, then I moved to Minnesota to attend school at Le Cordon Bleu College, where I got my culinary arts degree,” Ribbink told us. “I’ve actually been in the hospitality business for nearly 20 years now – both bartending and serving.”
In addition to working Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at the Monger, Ribbink runs her own business, a bakery called Janie’s Sweet Delights located in front of Gulf Shore Grill.
“I love how both of my jobs allow me to be creative and meet people at the same time,” she says. “I just wish I had a little more time to enjoy the beach.”
Stay tuned in 2016 to meet more great beach bartenders!
Keri Hendry Weeg