Monday, May 17, 2021

Ochopee Restaurant is a Trip Back in Time

Growing Up in Everglades City

Photos by Savannah Oglesby | Terri Rementeria and Joan (Joanie) Griffin.

Living in a small town far from the city has its perks; one of them being our locally owned restaurants that are filled with delicious food and history.

Joanie’s Blue Crab Café sits directly on the side of the road in Ochopee, Florida, which is about 12 minutes from Everglades City on 41 going towards Miami. You certainly can’t miss it either, the restaurant is a vibrant shade of red with steps leading up to the entrance and a giant blue sign with “Cold Beer” written on it in white.

Walking into the restaurant is like taking a step back in time with a twist, and I for one instantly fell in love with it. The windows and doors are opened wide as the breeze from outside is the air conditioner for the building. To the left is a man in the corner singing and strumming his guitar, his melody floating through the air. Along the wooden walls are paintings, taxidermied animals, pictures and knick-knacks that are very eccentric, adding originality and character to the atmosphere. Tables are lined up in the center of the room, every single one of them filled with people chowing down on food and sipping drinks. To the right is the register with a gator head propped up on a piece of wood and an owl strung up from the ceiling with its wings spread wide; behind them on the wall is a giant chalk board with the statement “If you want fast food, keep traveling 42 miles west or 66 miles east, Happy Trails, y’all.” The screened in porch on the left side of the building is where my parents and I like to sit so we can watch the cars drive by and feel the nice cool breeze from the woods.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mrs. Joan Griffin (nicknamed Joanie) who is the owner of the famed Joanie’s Blue Crab Café. I drove out to her home and was greeted with a smile, warm hug and a “I haven’t seen you since you were this tall!” as she held her hand out towards the ground. We went and sat at her kitchen table and she began telling me about the history of her restaurant. The building was in fact an old cattle barn in the 1930s, and after that was a bulk plant that stored both oil and gasoline. In 1976, Joan and her husband Carl purchased the concrete filling station next door and the bulk plant. While her husband Carl ran their Chevron station and garage next door, Joan turned the bulk plant into “Joan’s Kwik Stop Country Store.”

The store was filled with goodies, necessities and Joan in the kitchen making milkshakes, sandwiches and subs. She would drive over to Publix and get the bread for the subs fresh from the bakery. “You could always depend on mine ‘cause I made them,” she reminisced. She also had a vegetable garden out front and when people would ask about it, she would go out to explain what she was growing. Joan used these fresh veggies for her salads. Joanie fell in love with cooking, and began adding local items, such as gator fritters, to the menu.

As the business began to build up, she began hiring, and in 1987 the Kwik Stop Country Store became Joanie’s Blue Crab Café. “All I knew was how to cook and take care of people,” Joan stated. As for her idea to paint the entire outside red, she claimed “It was a barn, it was supposed to be that color.”

Joan isn’t the only one in her family in the restaurant business; her daughter, Terri Rementeria, is the owner of Camellia Street Grill located in Everglades City. Terri came over to visit and said that her mother had inspired her to start Camellia Street Grill, but neither her nor Joan ever imagined that they would be in the restaurant business. They both had started their businesses because of circumstances. Over the years, Joanie’s Blue Crab Café has gotten a lot of publicity and the restaurant is world-renowned. Terri remembered one time a group from another country came in to eat and showed her a magazine from their country that had a picture of the café in it. She also recalls the many times people ask her if she is Joanie while working at her mom’s restaurant. They began talking about ideas such as having Joan be the greeter at the front so people can meet her and putting a picture of her on the wall for people to see. The interview then turned into a friendly conversation about Ochopee and remembering what it was like in the Everglades in the old days. It was so heartwarming to watch a mother and daughter reminisce and laugh.

After talking with both of them, we exchanged hugs on Joan’s front porch, and I headed back home passing the sawgrass of Big Cypress. Everglades City is filled with the most incredible and hardworking people who never give up and never take the easy way out. Joan Griffin never went to school for business, but she is without a doubt a very remarkable woman who turned a red barn into a world-famous café.

University of Florida student Savannah Oglesby has lived in Everglades City her entire life. A lover of nature; some of her favorite things are sunsets, night lightning and mountains. She enjoys adventures and spending time with family, friends and two orange tabby cats. She also enjoys travelling, taking photos of nature, learning about extreme weather and seeing the world in different perspectives. Savannah’s love for Everglades City, and its history, is endless.

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