Cabbage Key, an inn, restaurant and popular dining spot for tourists and Southwest Florida boaters that has grown since 1936, spent a couple of hours inside the eye of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, only to escape relatively unscathed.
Other than the canopy of trees getting chopped by the storm’s winds and the marina with 90 slips for the visiting boats getting half-ruined, things were looking good for the brothers who co-own the business, Rob Wells III and Ken Wells.
They oversee seven cottages, an inn with six rooms and the restaurant, where the menu features the “Cabbage Key Famous Cheeseburger” and where “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer Jimmy Buffet once roamed during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“It’s a relative term, how much damage we had,” Rob Wells III said. “Comparatively speaking to our partners in Lee County, we feel very fortunate. However, the vast majority of our marina was destroyed. All the buildings had some type of damage, whether it be roof damage or siding damage. You can’t just haul off debris there like you can on the mainland.
We were fortunate to have fairly large crews out there.”
Cabbage Key shut down at 1:30 p.m. Monday, Sept 26, as the storm approached. It reopened Thursday, Oct. 13, for about four hours a day, running on generator power for eight days.
Power was restored to the island at 5 p.m., Oct. 20.
Wells said the biggest immediate focus, other than clearing the debris, was restoring the dock, a task that is almost finished.
“We were able to get a dock builder out there,” said Wells, a Fort Myers resident. His parents still live on the island, along with about 15 of the inn’s workers. “That was one of the most important things to us. We need to have docks. That’s like having a parking lot for a restaurant in Fort Myers. It’s essential.
“I think we’re going to finish the main dock and the marina this week. That will be really beneficial to getting these boats back. We still need to run power to the main dock. Then, it’s called punch list items. Siding here, a window there. That kind of stuff. We’ve turned the corner.”
Wells, 49, grew up on Cabbage Key. His parents moved there from North Carolina when he was three, in 1976.
“Jimmy Buffet’s sister lived on Boca Grande,” Wells said. “This was back in the late ’70s, early ‘80s. So Jimmy Buffet would visit his sister. Then he’d be cruising around the area. He liked to come into Cabbage Key. He’d come in and have lunch or a drink. I never remember Jimmy singing there.
“My father might remember that more. But I do remember him coming in on a seaplane. And of course, anybody arriving by seaplane was of interest to a 10 or 11-year-old boy.”
Hurricane Ian effectively shut down Cabbage Key for a couple of weeks after the storm, not because of the damage there, but because of the damage elsewhere, said Scott Lipson, the restaurant’s food and beverage manager.
So many other destroyed docks and boats prevented the usual crowds from visiting.
“We are at 100% now,” Lipson said of the restaurant and inn. “We are seeing our guests grow each week, slowly but surely. On New Year’s Eve, we were at 100% occupancy.”
Most of the guests arrive from Captiva Cruises, which just returned to business, a water taxi from the Pineland Marina on Pine Island, or independent boaters.
On a recent Wednesday, lunch-time looked near normal, as people began filling the bar that has thousands of dollar bills stapled or pinned to the wood-frame walls. They were eating the “famous” cheeseburger and drinking the “Cabbage Creeper,” a house-made concoction of silver rum, crème de coconut and pineapple juice over ice with a coffee liqueur floater and a cherry.
With many of the coastal “Old-Florida” bars destroyed by the hurricane, Lipson said he was thankful his workplace was largely spared, so the “Old-Florida charm” will continue there.
“We are known for our dollar bill bar,” Lipson said. “And between the bar and our back porch, we have close to $90,000 hanging on the walls. All put there from our guests. When money falls, we collect it. I present it to the family at the end of each year. It comes out to about $10,000. It’s donated to children’s and educational charities.
“The one directive from the family to us was, let’s get Cabbage Key up and running. Because it’s important to the community as a symbol of hope to get Cabbage Key up and running.
It’s been in the same family now for 47 years, and it’s in its second generation.”