I take a bite of the Turtle Club’s Tavern burger when Chris Evans excuses himself from the table to attend to business. I continue to eat, enjoying the soon-to-befamous masterpiece of meat cooked exactly as ordered, topped with 1000 Keys Sauce and bacon and pimento cheese. It’s such an amazing burger, I momentarily forget I’m here to find out more about Mr. Evans, the prodigal Charlotte County son who at just 34 has successfully launched some of the area’s most successful restaurants and as managing partner of the new Turtle Club endeavor is already talking expansion.
Mr. Evan returns briefly, sees I’ve eaten only half of the burger, and insists I have dessert. Twist my arm. (For the record, I had the bourbon pecan pie with a scoop of vanilla from Cubby’s.) He once again disappears and this time doesn’t return.
Mr. Evans hadn’t expected the restaurant’s lunch business to pick up until late January, but the simultaneous arrival of two large parties and a steady flow of tourists and locals ducking into downtown Punta Gorda’s newest restaurant signaled otherwise. He was needed in the kitchen.
It’s just one of the many hats my gracious host, who’s been in the restaurant biz since he was old enough to drink legally, wears as managing partner of the Turtle Club, a sister of the Naples restaurant with the same name.
After standing vacant for six years, downtown diners have been taking the reimagined Turtle Club by storm since its soft opening in October — just two months before the birth of Mr. Evans’ daughter, Briley. The historic building at 139 W. Marion Ave. is barely reminiscent of the original, after a mid-year restoration combined the former Waldo’s Bistro and neighboring bait and tackle shop.
This is how Mr. Evans spent his summer: Renovating and transforming the space into a coastal tavern. And it was a serendipitous idea that brought the Charlotte High graduate to this place at this time.
“Everybody kept asking if the Turtle Club was going to reopen,” he says. “I randomly called Pete,” he said, referring to Pete Tierney. As it turned out, Mr. Tierney and Mick Moore, managing partners of the Naples restaurant, were also considering a reopening. The three brainstormed a new vision and concept for the Turtle Club 2.0.
“They gave me the keys to the building. I really hadn’t planned on starting a new restaurant, but it was clear Punta Gorda was ready for more variety,” Mr. Evans says. “I understood the area’s demographics and market, which is completely different than Naples.”
“Prices have to be right,” Mr. Evans said. “You don’t want to scare away guests with a beautiful environment. You have to strike that balance of ambience, quality and service. I feel we’ve done that. The response has been great, and we’re exceeding our sales goals.”
While this rendition of the Turtle Club still offers Oysters Turtlefeller and lobster bisque, the building itself offers a number of dining experiences — the brickwalled Coastal Tavern with a tin-and woodbeamed ceiling; the cozy atmosphere of a home library (complete with books) and fireplace in the bar lounge; and the contemporary Claw Bar with its large farm tables. The latter displays its fresh seafood on ice, including varieties of oysters, whole Maine lobster and Pine Island blue crab claws. There’s also a 70-seat patio with a tiered Tuscan fountain, twinkling lights and vined wall. It’s a Naples experience inside the atmosphere of a small city’s bustling downtown.
“I literally started under the business,” he says with a laugh. His first job was shoring up plumbing, grease and sewer lines at Harpoon Harry’s. It eventually led to a management position with Smugglers Enterprises.
Mr. Evans has worked with some of the area’s most creative chefs and helped launch Laishley Crab House, but has never had any aspirations to don a chef’s toque.
“My passion has always been the business development side: Build this one, build another and scale the business to be six to eight stores,” he says. “I want to open a chain of concepts similar to the Turtle Club under the name F.M. Don’s, after my grandfather who developed and built Fishermen’s Village and Emerald Point in Punta Gorda.”
Mr. Evans’ talents for concept, marketing and service were honed in his 13 years with Smugglers. Community events such as the Flatsmasters Tournament Series emerged from Smugglers’ event management division. Haunting on the Harbor, the city’s Halloween event, was also Mr. Evans’ idea. In 2008, he formed The Smugglers’ Foundation, donating a portion of annual sales to fund charitable organizations.
Mr. Evans has also served on the Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau’s board of directors and is presently working with other community partners on a program to teach children about philanthropy and helping others. He says the Turtle Club will host charity events and fundraisers in the summer.
Despite balancing the duties of a new restaurant, a newborn baby and a teacup pet pig at home, Mr. Evans is already taking about expansion, taking the Turtle Club concept to Sarasota.
“We don’t have tunnel vision,” he says. “There’s a 10-year plan for a family-oriented multi-store business.”
One key to success is the Turtle Club’s emphasis on gracious hospitality — a term repeated in the restaurant’s press releases, website and on its blackboards in the lounge.
“(Gracious hospitality) seems to be lost in the hospitality business,” Mr. Evans says. “We have to shake complacency. We have to earn your business. We want our staff to have a rapport and engage in conversation with our guests. If you can’t distinguish between (your) customers and (your) family, that’s gracious hospitality.”
Some employees get it; others do not. Some simply have to learn. He beams with pride when talking about the server who used to tremble as she presented a bottle of wine to guests. “She just received her first $70 tip,” he says. “She’s come a long way.”
At the Turtle Club, staff greets patrons with a genuine welcome and there’s no cattle-herding mentality of hurrying guests to clear the table for another party.
“Food is presented, not auctioned off,” says Mr. Evans, noting the staff’s knowledge of who ordered what. “We’re ‘Cheers’ done very well.”
The books confirm this philosphy. Checks are presented in antique hardback books from the library. Guests have taken to recounting their experience, scribbling kudos to the food and staff
The restaurant’s culture of hospitality also pays forward. After their Thanksgiving meals, patrons came in for a drink, bringing plates to the bartenders.
Gracious also describes Mr. Evans, who leads by example, greeting several guests with warm hugs.
“I have grown up in the restaurant business,” he says. “I enjoy people.”
Chili Challenge heats up food events
Punta Gorda resident Dean Herbert and his team of hillbilly chili masters are hoping for a three-peat People’s Choice Award during the fourth annual Charlotte Harbor Chili Challenge and Beer Festival in Laishley Park on Saturday, Jan. 31. The Herbert team’s YeeHaw Chili has placed first since entering the contest two years ago and received top honors for best-decorated booth. In 2014, Dean and Jayne Herberts and neighbors Jim and Linda Edmond, Grant and Sandi Genter and Dave and Roger Comtois received second place from the judging panel for their Western-style chili.
Presented by Smugglers Enterprises, the annual cook-off features a different yearly theme and attracts 25 teams, according to Jeff Cleffi of Smugglers Event Management. This year, it’s hillbilly chili and when I jokingly asked Mr. Herbert if his recipe would include rabbit, he gave me something akin to “no comment.”
AMIkids Crossroads Executive Director John Davidson says his team has a better game plan than it did during its first fest two years ago. “We made 10 gallons and ran out within the first hour,” he says. “This year we’re making 30 gallons.”
Crossroads participants are students in the culinary arts program led by food service manager Shelly Coakley. Ms. Coakley teaches the foster boys how to cook and garden at home and at school.
“They had a lot of fun at the last chili festival,” Mr. Davidson says. “Shelly has them really excited and they’re out there to win. It also gets the word out about what we do.”
Winners are determined by a panel of judges and festival-goers, receiving $500 for first place in three categories: The Showmanship Award for best decorated booth; The Judges’ Award, bestowed to the highest-ranking chili, based on aroma, consistency, color, taste and texture; and the People’s Choice Award for the group that collects the most votes from the public between noon and 4 p.m.
Mr. Herbert has reinvested his team’s winnings into new equipment: larger chili pots and a cooker for its planned 40-50 gallons of chili. “We had 30 gallons last year and ran out at 2 (p.m.) — two hours before it ended.”
He says the team uses his basic southernstyled chili recipe and tweaks it for the event theme. “I’m originally from Indiana and moved to Georgia,” he says. “Southern chili is a whole different ballgame.”
Winners will be announced during an awards ceremony at 5 p.m. The festival also features live entertainment by Deb & the Dynamics and Rusty Wright; a children’s activity area; and a beer tasting tent offering more than 15 craft beers from microbreweries around the country.
Further foodie festivals
Saturday, Jan. 31, is Peace River Seafood’s 12th anniversary party. Call 505-8440 for information.
Wednesday, Feb. 4: What do you get when you cross two good reads and a great restaurant? “Celebrating Florida Food,” a literary dinner presented by Copperfish Books at Trabue, 258 W. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda.
The authors of Florida-centric food books “Good Catch: Recipes and Stories Celebrating the Best of Florida’s Waters” and “Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans” share stories and recipes while participants enjoy culinary masterpieces prepared by Trabue’s acclaimed chef Keith Meyer.
The intimate 3 p.m. seating is $30 for five generous sample plates. Tickets are available through Copperfish. 205-2560 for details. ¦