A drive around Amelia Island shows a much different community since an order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week devastated bars and turned diners out of restaurants. The island is heavily dependent on those establishments to employ hundreds of people and pump millions of dollars into the local economy.
Business owners and managers are finding ways to keep the doors open and as many people employed as possible, getting creative and looking to the island’s close-knit community for support.
Sliders Seaside Grill, a restaurant on South Fletcher Avenue that focuses on seafood and boasts oceanfront views and a Tiki bar, was beginning to gear up for the tourist season, when it employs upward of 100 people, but was forced to close its doors to customers.
“We had about 60 people, and now we are down to about five,” Manager Cason Zylinski told the News-Leader. “Where we used to do $15,000 a day, we are now doing less than $1,000 a day. We have lost 99% of our business.”
Sliders is doing what it can to support employees they have had to furlough, Zylinski said.
“We opened the coolers and let our people take food home,” she said. “We are following the news every day to see how things are going to work, just like everyone else.”
Sliders’ location at the intersection of Sadler Road and South Fletcher Avenue, is a local hotspot, and that hasn’t changed, according to Zylinski.
“We still get people coming by, walking their dogs or riding bikes, and they stop and talk, although we keep six feet away,” she said. “People are just craving that connection, and that’s precious to them, and to us.”
Sliders, like most restaurants on the island, is offering curbside service and delivery, which is keeping the doors open. One business, a combination grocery store and café, is getting creative with cook-at-home meal kits focusing on healthy foods.
Nassau Health Foods and the Mustard Seed Café that operates inside the store sell organic groceries and meals. Both the store and the café are providing curbside and walk-in service for organic breakfasts and lunches. The café has four employees, bringing the total of people working in the store to 15. The café’s manager, Shawn Meeks, said that no employees have been laid off, though their hours have been reduced.
“We have our normal menu available for pickup, and we are on DoorDash (delivery service),” Meeks said. “We are making meal kits which include all the ingredients you need to cook a meal along with instructions. We will be making videos and posting them online to go with the kits as well.”
Meeks said the drop in business at Nassau Health Foods has been “huge,” but he hopes the store will get back to its normal level of business with the measures it is taking.
“We just want to get local, fresh, healthy products into people’s homes,” he said.
Management at Captain Jack’s Smokehouse, a BBQ restaurant on the east side of the Thomas J. Shave Jr. Bridge, said they closed the restaurant’s dining room as soon as DeSantis issued his order. The restaurant still offers carryout and curbside service, as well as catering, allowing employees to work as many hours as is feasible.
“We are rotating people, trying to give them as many hours as we can,” said Charles Hutton, manager. “Customers have been fantastic, supporting our staff. We really need that. Get out and support local business so we will still be here in two months.”
Many of the bars that are local institutions – the Palace Saloon, Hammerhead, Emerald Goat – are owned by Amelia Island Hospitality Group, headed by Wes and George Sheffield. DeSantis’ order prohibits selling alcohol by the drink, but businesses can sell closed containers, which is what staff at Hammerhead is doing, Derek McCray, manager at AIHG, said. McCray talked to the News-Leader from the deck overlooking the now-silent Hammerhead.
Lowell Hall, who is also an owner in AIHG, said Hammerhead has never, in his memory of more than 30 years, closed, except during a mandatory hurricane evacuation. The bar, catty corner from Sliders, remains open for carryout of closed containers.
McCray said AIHG, which also owns some liquor stores on the island and employs an administrative staff at Amelia Underwriters, provides paychecks to roughly 75 people.
“The majority of our people are hourly employees who make $5.40 an hour before tips,” McCray said. “If they work enough hours, they get health insurance through the company, and we are hoping the health insurance companies will be understanding so they can keep their insurance.” The employees are responsible for paying their own premiums.
McCray said he has been giving extra hours to employees, paying them $11 an hour to do “deep cleans” at the businesses and work on maintenance projects even though most maintenance had already been performed in preparation for the tourist season.
“The problem is, that doesn’t take a month,” he said. “I have maybe two six-hour shifts at the bars, but we are keeping as many people as possible.”
Hammerhead remains open, offering beer and liquor in containers which McCray said he would deliver.
“We want people to know we have made sure our prices are competitive with other, larger stores,” he said. “Call us, and we will match their prices, and we will bring it to you.”
Like everyone who is enduring the global coronavirus pandemic, Hall and McCray said they are looking forward to getting over the crisis and welcoming back their customers.
“When this is over, we are going to throw the biggest party you ever saw,” Hall said. “Our plan is to make Hammerhead the most welcoming bar on the East Coast.”