Palace turns from bar into ‘liquor store’

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  • The Palace Saloon, above left, has been through fire, hurricanes, and Prohibition, and now is struggling to survive a global pandemic by operating as a liquor store where patrons can still purchase a gallon of the establishment’s signature Pirate’s Punch for takeout. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    The Palace Saloon, above left, has been through fire, hurricanes, and Prohibition, and now is struggling to survive a global pandemic by operating as a liquor store where patrons can still purchase a gallon of the establishment’s signature Pirate’s Punch for takeout. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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Fernandina Beach has many iconic locales – the marina and waterfront, homes and churches from the last century, a renovated train station – but none evokes historic Fernandina more than the Palace Saloon, dubbed “Florida’s oldest bar.” Most downtown businesses have shut down due to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to shutter nonessential businesses, but the Palace Saloon remains open – just not as a bar.

“We are a liquor store,” said bartender and current Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller.

Miller stands behind the bar at the Palace several days and nights a week. He said the Palace is open for two five-hour shifts a day, thanks to the governor’s determination that alcohol sales are an essential service, though DeSantis also prohibited bars from seating customers.

“People want normalcy. They want to be able to come in,” Miller said in the empty saloon that he says is doing 10% of its regular business. “I still have people come in and try to order drinks, and (I) have to tell them we’ve been shut for over a month. Some people say they have come from Jacksonville thinking they may be able to get a drink here.”

Customers can still enjoy the Palace’s famous Pirate Punch, but not on the premises.

“You can get a gallon of punch, but they have locked seals on them,” Miller said. “Any store that has a package license can still sell, but they have to be sealed. Everything in the bar has a lid on it. If people come in and want a cup or a glass, I can sell you individual beers, but I can’t open it and you can’t drink it on the street.”

Another downtown staple still open for business is Atlantic Seafood Bait & Tackle, which has been in operation since 1975. The shop, located at the Fernandina Harbor Marina, is owned by Charlie Taylor and Ann Coonrod, Taylor’s sister.

Taylor manages the store. He said business is down 60%, forcing him to reduce the hours of some employees, but he has not had to lay anyone off. “We still have some loyal customers, locals as well as tourists,” Taylor said from behind the counter. “We sell wholesale to restaurants, but that is all shut down.”

Taylor said that while the downturn in business has affected the quantity of products the store sells, he is struggling to adapt.

“We try to carry fresh products,” he said. “Our customers are very, very happy with our fresh seafood. They appreciate it.”

While Atlantic Seafood has been affected by hurricanes, Taylor said those were short-term effects, lasting only a week, while the coronavirus is long-term.

“We are having to totally adjust,” he said. “But, we plan to stay open.”

Another downtown fixture is still fulfilling the public’s need for caffeine boosts. 

Amelia Island Coffee, like many restaurants on the island, is open for take-out business only. Manager Ricky Robbins said customers can’t sit down and chat as usual while enjoying a meal or a snack, but they can take their orders to go. Robbins said he has taken the opportunity to sit in the coffee shop’s seating area, which surprised some of his customers.

“My office is upstairs, because I don’t want to take a table away from a guest,” Robbins said. “But, because we were slow, I wanted to give our regulars more of a sense of ease, that I was there making sure everything was getting done as it should be.” So, he said, he began using one of the tables in the shop for a headquarters.

“One morning, a couple of people saw me eating at the table. They told me I couldn’t eat here,” Robbins said, laughing. “I told them I am the manager (and) this is my office now. I’m socially distancing. I’m here 10 hours a day. I have to eat.”

Back at the Palace Saloon, Miller says that, just like during hurricanes, the people of Amelia Island are coming together as a community. This time they are taking care of each other by staying apart.

“People are doing the right thing,” Miller said. “I honestly attribute that to people, the older community, taking it seriously.

“People have a lot of respect for each other here. I think a small community like this, where people actually know each other … they know somebody who could get sick. People know people who could be affected directly. It’s not just a random, obscure thing. It’s actually going to affect people they know. Small towns are seeing this as their neighbors. This is just like hurricanes. When you are in a tragedy, people really grow a sense of community. They stick together.”

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com