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Date of Issue: March 05, 2008

Landmark restaurant bucks gloomy tide

Bright spot
The Seafood Shack is a bright spot in a real estate market that is gloomy in most of the United States and Florida. Islander Photo: Jack Elka.

Florida’s depressed real estate market doesn’t seem to have an affect on the Seafood Shack in Cortez, says owner Ham Jones - “I’ve got a whole stack of prospective buyers, I’m in negotiations every day.”

His cheery word comes as the landmark restaurant goes into its 38th year on the Cortez waterfront, still going strong despite its comedown from its once-dominant position as the largest independent restaurant in Florida in terms of receipts.

Except for a brief hiatus a few years ago that crippled the operation for awhile, Jones has run the restaurant and adjacent marina all of its years. With a foot injured in an accident, Jones has drawn back from management, turning that over to a staff he has been some years rebuilding.

He bought the land in 1970, he recalls, and built a 150-seat restaurant to which he added 215 more in 1976. Soon he had waiting lines three hours long, he recalls, “and that’s too long; by the time they got seated they were too drunk or too angry to appreciate the food.”

So in 1980, he tore down the old building and built a 700-seat replacement. Within three years, the waiting lines were up to three hours again. So Jones added 320 more seats on the big paddlewheel Showboat that docked alongside the restaurant.

He sold the restaurant in 2001 but the next year took it back as a failed operation. His 254 employees had scattered by then and he has had a long struggle rebuilding with new people.

He had it sold again in 2004, and at the request of the supposed new owner, closed the second floor. Then, virtually on the eve of closing, a hurricane so severely damaged the buyer’s extensive properties on the “other coast” that he had to forfeit his earnest money and pull out.

It’s been on the active market ever since - just in time to hit the market’s post-boom downturn. Jones said he has had several offers, none acceptable, and he’s in negotiations now with another prospect that looks good and is keeping track of others that have expressed interest.

The restaurant is still running, but at a reduced pace.  Where in season in the 1980s and 1990s he had 1,000 patrons seated and 2,000 waiting on any Sunday afternoon, now there are 400 a day tops.

When the federal government imposed new requirements on Showboat, he shut her down and gave her to a friend who had some work done and operates the big paddlewheeler as the party boat for which it was built, now in Norfolk, Va.

The marina that goes along with the Shack is full with 90 boats almost all the time, Jones said, and it is part of the deal. So are the Shack’s six acres of land, some 1,500 lineal feet of it on Anna Maria Sound.

He won’t talk price for publication, saying he leaves that up to his broker. But $10 million to $12 million was mentioned last year when supporters of the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez toyed briefly with the notion of putting the museum and historical operations there.