Irma nearly wiped it out, but this popular Keys is restaurant is back in business

While most of the attention in the days following Hurricane Irma’s battering of the island chain focused on the Middle and Lower Keys, the pile of splinters and rubble that was left of Snappers Oceanfront Restaurant and Bar in Key Largo was repeatedly shown as proof that the the Upper Keys, too, took an overwhelming beating from the Category 4 storm last month.

The popular — and fair to say iconic — watering hole and eatery off mile marker 94.5 was so badly damaged by Irma’s surge that veteran CNN correspondent Bill Weir said in his post-storm report that the sight of the devastation at the establishment where he had just been days earlier had “shaken me unlike anything” he’d seen in his 25 years of reporting.

Docks were smashed. Seawalls buckled. The famous Turtle Club outdoor bar was gone and the inside restaurant was flooded with four feet of surge and sometimes waves as high as 10 feet, said owner Peter Althuis.

“The whole kitchen and all the equipment were completely wiped out,” Althuis said. “The force of nature is incredible.”

Few who witnessed what Snappers looked like after the Sept. 10 hurricane would believe it’d ever open again. But it is. And it was just days later that Althuis and his dedicated staff began serving customers again.

“I came back as soon as I could, and what we did was immediately start cleaning, cleaning, cleaning,” said Althuis, who rode out Irma at his brother’s house in Coral Gables once forecasters predicted the Keys would take a direct hit. “The first day we were open was the Friday after the hurricane. There was one piece of bar still there and at that time, we did a little barbecue with a couple of burgers and a couple of dogs and some drinks.”

Althuis said his decision to reopen quickly wasn’t just to get back in business, but also to give locals recovering from Irma an escape from the harsh reality they woke up to in Irma’s wake.

“My idea was the sooner we were open the better, because everyone was cleaning all day long. It was only locals at that time,” he said. “Other people were not allowed into the Keys, and after a long day of cleaning, people want to unwind. People want to tell their stories.”

“A few days later, everybody came in with beers and everything and we just made a party for about 40 people.”

By Wednesday, Sept. 13, Snappers had the outside bar right behind the indoor restaurant back open selling drinks and food from its new “Irmageddon” menu. Since the kitchen is out of service, meals are being cooked by executive chef Camellien Octela Jr. and his team inside a food truck next to the bar, which Octela almost prefers to the conventional kitchen.

“It’s better AC. Better execution and better eye contact with the customers,” Octela said as he prepped for the lunch crowd Friday. “We can say hi to them and they say hi to us.”

Snappers is open daily from noon until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday, starting with brunch with a menu that includes French toast, breakfast tacos, omelets and biscuits and gravy, as well as a bloody Mary and champagne bar.

“We’ve had the past two to three weeks the Sunday brunch,” Althuis said. “We’ve been very busy.”

But it’s going to take some time to be fully operational. Althuis’ goal is to open the inside restaurant by December and then move on to rebuilding the popular Turtle Club bar.

“The whole Turtle Club was completely gone when I got back here,” he said. “The restaurant was badly damaged, but it’s not gone.”

Monroe County still has to sign off on some permits before work can begin on the Turtle Club, but Althuis believes it’s just a matter of taking care of some formalities.

“It’s grandfathered in. But I’m focused on the main restaurant now and the Turtle Club after,” he said. “When I get the green light, I think we can crank it out in three to four weeks.”

Rebuilding the restaurant and the kitchen is going to take some hard work, but much of it has already been done. Once the water ebbed, about a foot of seagrass carpeted the dining room wall to wall. The kitchen and all its equipment were destroyed. More than 160 truckloads of debris were removed from the property. But the building itself is solid.

“This main building was built in 1958,” Althuis said. “The structure’s going nowhere. It’s concrete, it’s massive coral rock.”

Already, the partially enclosed inside has been cleaned enough for customers to able to sit there. The property also has four hotel rooms that reopened for guests Thursday.

“We’re coming back stronger than ever. Conch strong,” Althuis said. “We’ll make it happen.”