The Cabbage Key Inn, a restaurant restoring docks, is back in business

Cabbage Key, an inn, restaurant and popular dining spot for Southwest Florida vacationers and boaters that has been around since 1936, spent several hours in the eye of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, only to escape relatively unscathed.

Aside from gale-force winds cutting down treetops and a half-destroyed marina with 90 slips for visiting boats, things looked good for the brothers who co-own the business, Rob Wells III and Ken Wells.

They oversee seven cabins, a six-room inn and restaurant, where the “Cabbage Key Famous Cheeseburger” is on the menu and where “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer Jimmy Buffet once roamed during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“It’s a relative term, how much damage we had,” Rob Wells III said. “Compared to our partners in Lee County, we feel very fortunate. However, the vast majority of our marina was destroyed. All the buildings had some kind of damage, whether it was damage to the roof or siding. You can’t just drag debris there like you can on land.

We’ve been lucky to have pretty big crews.”

Cabbage Key closed at 1:30 PM on Monday, September 26, as the storm approached. It reopened on Thursday, October 13, for about four hours a day, running on generator power for eight days.
Power supply on the island was restored at 5:00 p.m. on October 20.
Wells said the biggest immediate focus, aside from cleaning up the debris, is restoring the pier, a task that is almost complete.

“We were able to find a dock builder,” said Wells, a Fort Myers resident. His parents still live on the island today, as do about 15 employees of the inn. “That was one of the most important things for us. We must have docks. It’s like having a restaurant parking lot in Fort Myers. Essentially.

“I think we will finish the main dock and the marina this week. This will be very useful for getting these ships back. We still need to power the main dock. Then, this is called a punch list of items. A window here, a window there. Stuff like that. We have turned the corner.”

Wells, 49, grew up on Cabbage Key. His parents moved there from North Carolina when he was three years old, in 1976.

“Jimmy Buffet’s sister lived on Boca Grande,” Wells said. “That was in the late 70s, early 80s. So Jimmy Buffet would visit his sister. Then he would cruise around. He loved coming to Cabbage Key. He would come in and have lunch or a drink. I don’t remember Jimmy singing there.

“My father might remember more about it. But I remember he came by seaplane. And of course, anyone who arrived by seaplane was interesting to a boy of 10 or 11.”

Hurricane Ian effectively closed Cabbage Key for several weeks after the storm, not because of damage there, but because of damage elsewhere, said Scott Lipson, the restaurant’s food and beverage manager.

So many other wrecked docks and ships prevented the usual crowds from visiting.

“We’re at 100% now,” Lipson said of the restaurant and inn. “We see that our guests are growing every week, slowly but surely. On New Year’s Eve, we were at 100% occupancy.”

Most guests come from Captiva Cruises, which just started operations, by water taxi from Pineland Marina on Pine Island, or by independent boaters.

On a recent Wednesday, lunchtime seemed almost normal as people began to fill the bar, which has thousands of dollar bills held together with staples or pins on the wood-frame walls. They ate the “famous” cheeseburger and drank the “Cabbage Creeper,” a homemade mix of silver rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice over ice with a shot of coffee liqueur and a cherry.

Since the hurricane destroyed many “old Florida” coastal bars, Lipson said he’s thankful his workplace was mostly spared, so the “old Florida charm” will continue there.

“We’re known for the dollar bill bar,” Lipson said. “And between the bar and our back porch, we have close to $90,000 hanging on the walls. Everything was put there by our guests. When the money drops, we collect it. I give it to my family at the end of every year. It works out to about $10,000. It was donated to charities for children and education.

“One directive the family gave us was, let Cabbage Key start operating. Because it’s important to the community as a symbol of hope to get Cabbage Key up and running.

Now it has been in the same family for 47 years and it is already in the second generation.”

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