Standing on a corner for a quarter century can be a good thing if your name is Mike Ward and you own a restaurant named Erin’s Isle that occupies a sparkling white building with a bright green roof that’s become a landmark of sorts for the bustling business-oriented area around Manatee Road and SR 951. Actually, if you inquire about the area, Mike will cheerfully explain how he came there because, “While I was visiting up north helping my brother John in 1981, I found out that the little bar on the corner of Manatee was for sale and I took advantage of the opportunity to settle here and made an offer. Did you know that as late as 1983, Collier Boulevard was still called Isle of Capri Road?”
Well, that having been said, it’s easy to see how the Erin’s Isle Restaurant & Irish Pub became identified as a landmark for the Prime Outlets mall area when street names were being created willy-nilly to suit the whim of some developer down the road who may have had a romantic notion about the Isle of Capri in the Gulf of Naples, Italy. Now then, Mike Ward, who settled in the Florida Gulf coast area and opened Erin’s Isle a quarter century ago, is originally from Brasher Falls, N.Y., a town perched on the St. Regis River, one of the tributaries of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an engineering marvel of canals and locks that connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean.
“My older brother John and I were raised in the restaurant business in upstate New York. The family business was Ward’s Hotel in Brasher Falls, in a building that dates back to the early 1800s. We catered to locals and also to people who had dealings with Brasher Falls Iron Works,” he explained, noting that this turn of the century industrial foundry, which generated power by giant water wheels in the St. Regis River, also manufactured manhole covers imprinted with the logo, “J.P. Kennehan & Sons,” that can still be found on the streets of cities across the country.
“I went to Canton University, one of the SUNY network colleges, where I majored in hotel and restaurant management, while in the meantime John took over the family business. After I graduated I went to work as general manager of the Dew Drop Up Restaurant — you had to go upstairs to enter — a nice upscale place frequented by the college crowd from Clarkson University, a privately funded school in Potsdam, N.Y. One young lady from Clarkson was a frequent customer and that’s how I met her dad, and he’s the one who told me about Coral Ridge Development in Coral Springs, Fla., owned by Westinghouse Company. By the way, WCI separated from Westinghouse on the East Coast and came over to Southwest Florida and started the WCI communities here.
“Anyway, that’s how I came to Florida. I was offered the food and beverage manager position at the Coral Ridge properties in Coral Springs. You know, I came over here (Marco) on vacation and that’s how I met Chef Wilhelm Blomier and he, finally, was the one who got me into the kitchen! First, he offered me a job as bar manager at The Old Marco Island Inn, and it was during that time I met my first wife, Suzanne, who was here on vacation from college and visiting her parents who lived on Marco Island.
“Incidentally, that’s how I met Bobby Gideons. We became friends and we talked for 20 years about him playing here and now he’s playing at Bobby Gideons Piano Bar at Erin’s Isle on Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday from 6 p.m. at Erin’s Isle. I worked Old Marco Inn from 1973 to 1981, and that’s where my culinary talents blossomed! Chef Wilhelm had a staff problem so, knowing that I appreciated good food, he asked me to help out in the kitchen. Probably, it was because of that problem that I came to start Erin’s Isle. After the fire John came down here and then we both went back up north and I helped John open a new restaurant in Potsdam,” Mike related, explaining that the fire that burned down Ward’s Hotel happened in 1981 and that’s why he left the Inn and went back to upstate New York to help his brother.
However, circumstances soon changed with John holding the fort in Potsdam while the balmy weather and family ties beckoned back in Marco, said Mike. “Then Susan came to visit and also told me that the little bar business on the corner of Manatee was for sale. So I took advantage of the opportunity to settle here, made an offer and then I had to re-build it. It was only a little pub with a big bar when John and I bought the business. Now I have 160 seats and doubled the interior space. My brother and I remodeled the building, adding 30 feet in back and 30 feet out front before we opened Erin’s Isle in December 1983 just in time for the holiday season.
“I’ve been going at it for 25 years and it’s been a very enjoyable time for me. Although, my brother John missed upstate New York and went back in 2004 and opened an Erin’s Isle II Restaurant that he built on the site of Ward’s Hotel. He also reopened the old campground adjacent to the site on the St. Regis River. That area is a popular tourist destination because of the great fishing and hunting as well as its excellent winter sports activity.
“I was the black sheep of the family because of my admiration for that great Irishman, Ronald Regan. I wanted to emulate him and became a staunch Barry Goldwater supporter in a diehard Democratic area,” Mike recalled during our kitchen conversation. His rosy cheeks and bright blue Irish eyes lit up as he grinned and pointed to a display in Erin’s Isle dining room that was dominated by an imposing painting of Regan in his film portrayal of “The Gipper” that was mounted on the wall and his expression became pensive.
“Actually, it has been a rewarding time. Many of our younger customers became friends over the years and now they come back with their families. It’s always been about families throughout the 25 years.”