To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumored demise of the Fishery Restaurant in Placida has been greatly exaggerated.
It has, however, survived a bank takeover, being placed on the market and all the obstacles created by the Coral Creek Bridge construction, which hindered access for months. Even now a real estate agent's sign trumpeting available land is bigger than the one on County Road 775 advising motorists of the turnoff into this enticing tropical throwback to a simpler time.
The one-time Boca Grande ferry boat landing site and former commercial mackerel processing plant was superceded decades ago in favor of three Boca Grande bridges and the 1995 gill net ban. But the Placida restaurant and five surrounding shops remain a unique blend of old and new Florida as are restaurant and gallery owners Garry and Margaret Albritton.
Garry Albritton is an artist and restaurateur.
This week, Garry Albritton reflects on the old Florida charm of The Fishery, which now represents four generations of a sometimes struggling family business in paradise.
Question: How are the holiday shoppers treating the historic Placida Row merchants?
Answer: It was decent for us. I think everybody did well. We don't have a lot of specials and people go to the Big Box stores on Black Friday. But all the shops did well and the restaurant did well. We were pleased.
Garry Albritton at a glance
Birth date: July 14, 1949
Occupation: restaurateur and artist
Family: Married 31 years to wide, Margaret, with two sons.
Education: Florida State University business degree
How came to area: Native son born on Cole Island
You should know: Garry Albritton offers wood carvings and wind machines, crafts, jewelry, clothing, gifts, and other fun things from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily during season at Placida Cove Gifts and Crafts. His wife specializes in tropical fine arts and crafts, gifts and clothing, and tropical dcor from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday in season at the Margaret Albritton Gallery. Together they run the Fishery Restaurant.
Q: How did sales volume compare with last year?
A: At least as good, maybe a little stronger. Everything, I think, is a little stronger than last year.
Q: What's driving the increase?
A: It seems we're getting more European tourists in, especially the British. They were gone for the summer. But for the past few weeks we're seeing a return, which is excellent for all the shops, the restaurant, everybody.
Q: How did road construction affect businesses?
A: It hurt. It was such a mess with the potholes and curb changes and construction equipment, some people were scared away. The county did put up some signs but they need to be lowered. The signs are posted a little high and they're a little small.
Q: How deeply is your family tree sunk into Boca Grande and Placida?
A: My mother's mother was born on Cole Island (part of Boca Grande). She's one of the Coles so I was born in Arcadia and raised here. My grandfather had the Fish House (on Placida) and my wife and I took that over when he passed away. We built the restaurant in 1988. It's still pretty amazing what happens out these windows every day. It's a special place, all of it, Boca Grande, Little Gasparilla, the water.
Q: Was it love at first sight with your wife?
A: We went to Port Charlotte High together. I knew from the second I met Margaret, it scared me so much, I knew what was going to happen. We both went to Florida State and we got married while we were in school and we returned here. Margaret is the driving force behind anything I've ever done. I always say Margaret brought out the spark in me.
Q: What once was your grandfather's fishing village has now evolved into a small string of art retailers, the Fishery Restaurant and a retail fish operation. Has this been the natural evolution away from the fishing industry?
A: We thought there was no reason lil' ol' Placida can't have an art gallery and gift shop along with the restaurant. The post office had been my great-grandfather's IGA grocery store. They moved here in the 1940s from the community of Gasparilla, which is where the Boca Grande Marina is at now. That's when my granddad built the Fish House building. The post office site came open when they wanted to break their historic lease and we said "Please do." As soon as they did, Margaret moved into what is now the Margaret Albritton Gallery. Elaine, my sister-in-law, and brother, Greg, kept their business, Placida Cove, and stayed there.
Q: Did the net ban kill the fishing industry here?
A: When the gill net ban happened in 1995, the state started training people in clam farming, Harbor Branch Oceanographic had a sea clam operation here for years. They vacated some years later and the Jon Hatch moved in and then Joe's orchid place moved in and Patti Middleton is doing her art here.
Q: How different is it now that you're leasing the land from the bank rather than leasing it out to renters as your forefathers did?
A: Everything is on the market. It's very complicated. About 15 years ago, my family sold the property to Jacques Cloutier (who defaulted on 20 loans totaling $115.5 million from nearly a dozen lenders). I do believe he wanted to preserve it. In the past few years he lost pretty much everything so the Caribbean Mortgage Lenders took it over and we're basically leasing from them.
Q: If a developer buys this historic 7 acres, are you ready for the Albritton legacy to come to an end?
A: It's a risk we took and we felt it was worth it when we did it. If that's what happens we'll adjust to it and do whatever. It just got to the point where we couldn't do it any longer.
Q: How many people visit this little stretch of Placida?
A: The restaurant continues to be a phenomenal draw. We draw 1,000 to 1,400 people a week off-season and during season we pull 7,000 to 10,000 a week, if not 15,000. We get a good number of people through here. It's a whole different life here.
Q: What does the future hold for the Fishery Restaurant and all its neighbors five years down the road?
A: I think we'll be here. If someone comes along and buys the property, I hope they have the desire to preserve it. This whole area has enough friends I don't think anybody will be able to tear it down and build up something commercial. There are a lot of setbacks and rules here. With all of condos sitting empty on the market up the road, I think that will put a damper on it for awhile.