The New Charley’s!
Long time islanders and visitors from the mid-1970s happily recall the days – and meals – at “Charley Brown’s” at 6241 Estero Boulevard, right across from the equally legendary hotel, “The Outrigger,” with the two affiliated under the corporate umbrella of Colorado Southern Inc. Over time, “Charley Brown’s” morphed into Charley’s Boat House Grill, serving another generation its distinctive meals, including its scrumptious prime rib. On November 15, the restaurant began its newest era as Charley’s Boat House Grill & Wine Bar!
“‘Charley Brown’s’ opened in November of 1974, so we just celebrated our 45th anniversary,” said Kitchen Manager Tim Henkel, who began his career with the restaurant in 1981, though he took 7 years off in the 1980s to be a stockbroker, then spent another 6 in the restaurant industry on Sanibel before returning in 1994. “Even though I was here in ’81 and we have many longtime employees, no one has any clue why the original name was ‘Charley Brown’s!’ That was the name though for the first 30 years, but when the Colorado Southern team took over in 2004, it changed to ‘Charley’s Boat House Grill’ until this reincarnation.”
Jeanne Bigos, the Colorado Southern General Manager who joined the organization in 1989, recalled, “When we took over ‘Charley’s,’ all the employees stayed with us, and that was a blessing and truly a ‘Win-Win’ situation! The genesis of first ‘The Outrigger’ in 1964 then ‘Charley’s’ a decade later began with two Pennsylvania boyhood friends, Malcolm Young and Dan Reinfried, and they brought in two more partners in Dave Fagerness and Ray Joeckel, who they met in Colorado as they were all in property acquisition for the oil and gas business. They found these parcels on Fort Myers Beach, when the island was still mostly undeveloped, and saw a great opportunity. Sadly, Dan is the only one left, and though he no longer lives on Fort Myers Beach, he still calls us often, to thank all of us for everything we did to give him such a wonderful life!”
Tim explained that the restaurant’s origin came from combining two concepts. “The owners had their own shrimp boat, called the ‘Commodore Perry,’ that you can still see in photographs on our interior walls today, so they wanted a place on the water where they could unload, prepare, and sell shrimp dinners. In addition to that, they wanted a comfortable sit-down dining experience, so they patterned this after ‘The Pewter Mug’ from Naples, and that is why we have our tremendous salad bar and specialize in prime rib and steaks. I know for a fact, however, that they never thought their restaurant would grow into this and still be relevant over 40 years later!”
Boat House & Wine Bar
Jeanne explained, “We have been planning this renovation for some time. My background is in the hotel business and there you never waste any space, so it always drove me a little crazy to come through ‘Charley’s’ main entrance and be in that entry foyer that served no purpose other than for people to wait a few minutes for their table or grab a piece of candy on the way out the door.” As for Tim’s perspective, “We had to be the only restaurant in Lee County without a bar! The renovation solved Jeanne’s concern and mine.”
“About a year-and-a-half ago, we hired David Paci as our Director of Wine & General Manager,” Jeanne continued. “David is a longtime and hugely successful Southwest Florida chef and restaurateur, well-known from the Sanibel Steakhouse and South Seas Island Resort. As we began going through the renovation decision-making process, we felt what the south end of Fort Myers Beach really missed was a place that specialized in fine wines, and that played right into Tim’s desire to add a bar area, so now we offer 125 different brands and types of wine, ranging from as little as $21 a bottle through Dom Perignon at $299!”
The renovation, however, did not come without challenges. “This is an old building,” Jeanne emphasized, “and when they originally built it, you could take shortcuts back then you cannot today, so once we got into it, we were constantly encountering new issues and problems. We worked with Meridian Construction, with whom we have a long and successful history, and we planned for it to begin in August, in the heart of the offseason. I hoped we could finish everything in two weeks, knowing full well that would actually mean four, so we could reopen and work through everything while still in the offseason, but once we started getting inside the walls, we discovered safety issues we simply had to address, so four weeks became eight and then ten, with our eventual reopening on November 15. Fortunately, our current owners were incredibly supportive, agreeing that if we were doing this, we would do it right.”
“The challenge when we did reopen,” Tim noted, “was integrating new staff we needed to hire with a brand new computer system, combined with the fact that business was already picking up by mid-November, but with patience from everyone, including our wonderful customers, we made it through. The best part was that while we had to add new staff due to the renovation, not one single employee left us during the shutdown.”
Dee Stevens, the Corporate Director of Food & Beverage, added, “We had to intertwine an expanded kitchen, expanded staff, and expanded menu, while retaining that same old ‘Charley’s’ quality – everyone did a fantastic job! Before this, our kitchen never even had a deep fryer.” “And now we have the best ‘Side Winder’ French fries in town,” Tim quickly interjected!
That “Cheers” Thing!
Beginning on Monday, December 9, Charley’s will serve lunch. “We will be open 7 days a week, from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.,” Dee explained. “Those will remain the same for the upcoming holidays, with the exception of Christmas Day when our hours will be 1 to 8 p.m. We will have a full lunch menu from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., will serve just appetizers in the bar from 3 to 4 p.m., then dinner from 4 to close, including our extremely popular ‘Early Bird Dinners’ from 4 to 6 p.m.”
So what makes Charley’s a Fort Myers Beach institution? “The quality of our service and the consistency of our product,” said Tim, “along with the length of service of so many of our employees; we really are a family! That explains why so many of our customers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s have been coming here since they were kids with their parents.” Dee agreed that the staff, many of whom are with ‘Charley’s’ for 20 or more years, are indispensable to its success, “along with our fabulous Salad Bar, as no one else has that! I took two calls last night from people confirming that we still have it.” To Jeanne, “it is that ‘Cheers’ thing, where everybody knows your name and you know theirs! That makes for such a terrific environment, plus you know that you are in for a really great meal!”