Some tourists avoid dining waterfront, 'blindsided' by environmental devastation

The News-Press
A pile of sand, dead fish and horseshoe crabs is surrounded by flies on Fort Myers Beach. Very few people were out on the beach, and very few people were eating lunch in the beachfront restaurants on Friday.

How much are waterfront restaurants in Southwest Florida getting hit by the toxic blue-green algae and red tide crisis?

Ask this tourist.

Angela Seldal, an Illinois resident and mother of five, said her family had to avoid eating at the waterfront due to the overwhelming smell on Fort Myers Beach and nearby areas. Seldal said she felt "blindsided" by the conditions of the air and water.

"The devastation in Florida seems to be not known to anyone outside the area," Seldal said. "We had no idea what we were in for until we arrived."

Angela Seldal, an Illinois resident and mother of five, said she travels to Florida every year for its gulf waters. It was the family's first day at their rental house on a beach in Estero that they noticed the water was brown and the air was making them cough, Seldal said.

Seldal traveled with her family from Illinois to rent an Estero Boulevard beach house in late July. The beginning of the nine-day trip turned sour when she realized her family couldn't walk the beach, let alone eat on it. The tourist described the smell outside her rental house and along the beach as inescapable and "just awful."

Tourists such as Seldal who can't change their plans due to rental contracts and airline tickets are flocking inland and inside for food. If they are here, and they still have to eat, where are they eating?

Heading inland and inside "to get away"

"We originally were going to eat at an outdoor restaurant right on Fort Myers Beach for, as my kids call it, 'our fancy dinner night,'" Seldal said.

Seldal's family ended up eating at Pinchers, because it was further inland. The family also went to Pizza Pub in Fort Myers during their stay — much farther from the beach.

Angela Seldal, a native of Illinois, traveled with her family to Fort Myers Beach for a 9-day trip, not knowing the beach was in bad condition. Her sons, Mak and Aiden, sit inside at Pinchers after the family reconsidered eating outside at a beachfront restaurant.

No one has to tell waitress Janine Roberts how slow things are for waterfront restaurants. The North Fort Myers resident and server quit her job at a waterfront Cape restaurant last week because she was earning less than she was paying for childcare.

"I was working the morning shifts at my previous place, and I was lucky to walk out with $40 in my pocket," Roberts said. "So I would still have to go to the bank just to pull money out to give the sitter."

Roberts has been waitressing for more than 15 years and said this is the first time she has had to quit and wait for season to return. She declined to name her former workplace because she did not want to give it "bad vibes."

The restaurant where she worked is fully outdoors, "so there is no going inside to get away" from the odor coming off the water, Roberts said. "Some days were worse than others."

Zak Kearns of Kearns Restaurant Group operates The Boathouse Tiki Bar & Grill, a restaurant with two locations on the waterfronts of Cape Coral and Fort Myers Shores. 

Kearns said his Boathouse location in Fort Myers Shores is doing great business with over 10,000 visitors since its late July opening, but this is because "right now it's the honeymoon period," Kearns said.

The Boathouse in the Cape is a different story. That location, part of the Cape Coral Yacht Club where a manatee was found dead on Tuesday, is experiencing algae growth along the shore. This had led to side effects, one being a bad smell, Kearns said.

"It is frustrating — wildlife and marine life thrown away and there's no regard for it," Kearns said. "And I don’t know what the clean-up process will be or how long it’s going to take. It's frustrating."

When 'local' becomes a bad word

Crave is a restaurant on McGregor Boulevard famous for its shrimp and grits. Owners Valerie and Sean Gavin said they're usually proud to say the restaurant get its shrimp locally from Fort Myers Beach, but the owners had to speak with their shrimp supplier last week, Trico Shrimp, to ensure food safety and quality.

"They are shrimping down in the Dry Tortugas islands by Key West," Valerie Gavin said. "So no problems."

Crave owners said tourists and locals come often. Some boaters came in last week and said they could no longer stand the water, owner Valerie Gavin said.

The co-owner said business has been great this summer. The restaurant will celebrate 11 years on Aug. 16. The owners see both tourists and locals on a daily basis.

"I've talked to guests who were not out on their boats or the beach because of the water issues last weekend," Valerie Gavin said.

Supporting the waterfronts

Some locals said they aren't letting the situation with the air and water affect their plans to dine at waterfront locations. 

"The locals should (dine out at waterfronts) more than ever," Cape resident James Aldrich said. "Especially since the tourists aren't. So many hard workers rely on this time of year, actually all year, to make money — and that is dependent on how busy they are."

Other than the smell, health concerns are another obstacle to frequenting these restaurants. The National Weather Service extended its beach hazards advisory to Monday. The advisory also extended to include Collier County.

Aldrich said he has a 7-year-old son, so he can understand if an outside-only restaurant shuts down due to air quality making people sick. Apart from that circumstance, locals should support waterfront dining even if it means sitting inside, Aldrich said.

He added: "As local residents, we have an obligation to not only help those that serve us in these beachfront businesses, but to do something about the actual problem that is causing it to occur."