599 South Collier Blvd #105, Marco
Once upon a time not too long ago New York’s boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, etc.) were loosely divided into several or more distinctive areas (covering 20 square blocks or more) called neighborhoods. A few of these neighborhoods became known beyond their imaginary borders, for instance as Little Italy, Chinatown, Hell’s Kitchen, and more recently Soho. However, they each had something in common. Each neighborhood boasted at least one corner bar where people gathered (some even let you run a tab until payday) and on another corner a family-run grocery store that usually gave credit based on the honor system and not a little piece of hard plastic, simply because you were a neighbor and neighbors helped neighbors. Alas, urban renewal and/or blight caused the exodus to the suburbs and created gated communities. People now drove to a shopping mall that had no corners to speak of, only paved parking spaces around a supermarket anchoring one end and a fast food chain on the other end — but no corner bar.
Not to worry, here on Marco Island, year-round and part-time residents transplanted from northern climes have a gathering spot in Rookie’s Bar & Grill, which has been occupying the same corner location in Marco Walk (formerly Mission Plaza) for over 16 years. “We opened on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1992. There was nothing here. Konrad’s was the first (Konrad’s Seafood & Grille Room opened Jan. 2, 1992),” recalled Rookie’s Executive Chef/co-owner Laura Bell, “There was just the shell and no floor — you could play volley ball inside — that was the fun part of creating Rookies, working from the ground up!
“My family moved here 26 years ago from Kentucky because we had family here, and I started sixth grade here,” Chef Laura said, adding that she had to ride the school bus to the middle school in East Naples. “It was beautiful here then, my uncle and my father worked for South Florida Painting and mom stayed home.” Chef Laura said reminiscing.
“Bruce and I got married in 1990, we opened Rookie’s in 1992, our daughter, Taylor, was born in 1994, and we just celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary!
“I like being in the kitchen — I really like to be back there. You know, I worked in the Big Al’s in Town Center, next to the video store that’s now a health food store (Summer Day). That started my interest in the restaurant business, but I always liked cooking with my mom.” Chef Laura said, noting she started working at Big Al’s while still in high school: first behind the counter then at the stove for about eight years, during that time the business was bought and sold by two different owners. “I was on the third owner when I left . It was stay or begin from scratch with Rookie’s! Why work for someone when you can do it yourself?
“It’s nice being partners with your husband. It’s funny, we’re the only couple that cook together five days a week and haven’t killed each other! We switch days because time is important when you have a child,” Chef Laura stated, noting that Taylor just turned 14, and the two of them traveled to Oklahoma recently to visit Bruce’s family, where Taylor also attended a basketball camp and enjoyed a 10-ay visit with her paternal grandparents.
“I don’t really get three weeks off — but I do like going to the food shows — the next one is in September. It’ll be fun visiting the purveyor’s booths, tasting samples and seeing all the new products.
“We make our own chili and our own soup from scratch, at least four different kinds each week, and our customers especially love my homemade corn chowder and Mexican soup. Everyone needs a good bowl of soup now and then.”
We inquired if Chef Laura tired of cooking occasionally?
“No, you just get tired of the hours and, I think, because something is always breaking down. You don’t always just get to cook. It’s the extra little things that pop up,” she said, looking preoccupied then smiling brightly. “There’s lots of interesting customers in a sports bar — no pool tables — but really a lot of colorful locals.
“We have a customer, Coach Dan, who comes in and sits at the bar, and when other customers come in they’ll first come over to shake his hand and some of the women kiss him on the cheek before they sit down on a bar stool around him. Everyone on the island, especially the old time residents, knows Coach Dan. He has a nice way about him, just a genuinely nice guy. On Sunday the bar is filled with locals, mostly Philly Eagles fans for Sean Shea, our only partner, it’s just the three of us now, but he’s not one of the original group of six friends — two married couples, Bruce and me. When we started Rookie’s, Sean was one of our bus boys while he was still in high school, he grew up with us.” Chef Laura explained.
Just then, Bruce happened by, saying he heard Laura mention the original partners and said he’d like explain how they came up with the Rookie’s name for the bar. “We were friends with the other two couples when we decided it would be fun to own a sports bar, but between us, Laura was the only one who had restaurant experience and knew how to cook,” Bruce explained, noting that they had decided on a sports theme and designed the logo on the window with cartoon characters depicting Bruce’s basketball expertise, the second partner’s football prowess and the third partner’s love for baseball. “Yet, we were only rookies when it came to the restaurant business. We thought that was funny and decided to call it Rookie’s Bar & Grill!”
“Yes,“ Chef Laura agreed, “I don’t think anyone ever realized how much work it is. Then over the years they opted out of the partnership for one reason or another – Bruce and I are the only ones left of the original partners. Three years ago we were losing a partner, and Sean, by that time, was tending bar and saw the benefits (of being a partner) and we asked if he wanted to buy in. We’ve always had, at the least, a partner,” Chef Laura related, noting the reason being that owners or partners have a vested interest and would likely be someone to depend on.
“We don’t have the type of liquor license that requires us to sell a lot of food. We don’t have to sell food at all, but we do sell a greater percentage of food than liquor because we have a loyal customer base along with an older happy hour group. The bar crowd doesn’t usually eat here, but we get early bird people for dinner, moviegoers mostly. While a lot of our customers come for lunch — workers, tourists — a big mix with lots of local and tourist families because our prices are reasonable,” Chef Laura said, adding that the bar serves only Budweiser brand beers on draft and every one of them is a best seller. “That’s fine, but in my heart I just think – the last American beer company sold to Europeans!”
We ingeniously inquired if Stella Artois (a premier Belgian beer) would soon be added to the bar’s draft lineup, and Chef Laura shot back: “If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t think I’d sell it!
“We have 10 people working here, including all three of us and wait staff, and four people have been with us for several years. We alternate coming in early on weekdays, and I come in Saturdays while Bruce works Sunday. Let’s just say he’s my right hand man. I trained him so he basically cooks the same as I do, but I didn’t tell him everything so he can’t do it better,” explained Chef Laura smiling wickedly.
“I do everything better and I do it more often! Making everything from scratch was really fun. All our sauces, tartar, cocktail and my special hot secret pepper sauce are all homemade. So many people asked to buy it so we put it up in 10 ounce bottles and sell it at the bar with Rookie’s T-shirts and mugs.
“We do still sell fresh grouper, broiled or fried at market price. Yes, it is expensive but we like to please our customers, and a lot of them are long-time residents that know what they want,” Chef Laura stated firmly, then smiled when she proudly confided that their daughter, Taylor, started working at Rookie’s on weekends. “We’re bringing her in, she finally got old enough to work,” Chef Laura said with mock impatience.
“She’s looking forward to school and I’m not sure about the restaurant, but she does like the money.”
We inquired if Chef Laura would do it all over again? “There are always changes you’d make, but all in all …”
If you go: Executive Chef/Co-owner Laura Bell: Rookie’s Bar & Grill, 599 S. Collier Blvd. Suite 105, Marco Walk across from the Hilton Marco island Beach Resort. Phone: 239-394-6400. Hours: Open 7 days, 11 a.m. – midnight.