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08/28/2014 at 4:03pm

Chef Tim HenkelChefs of the Beach-Tim Henkel
Charley’s Boat House Grill

The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart.According to an article on the websiteciting a study done at Cornell University and Michigan State University, "After the first year 27% of restaurant startups failed; after three years, 50% of those restaurants were no longer in business; and after five years 60% had gone south. At the end of ten years, 70% of the restaurants that had opened for business a decade before had failed.”

It is impressive to find a restaurant that has been in business for more than a decade or two. It is even more impressive to find an eatery that has been under the same ownership and management for the duration. But right here, on our tiny little island, we have a few that have demonstrated staying power and achieved success and popularity among locals and visitors alike, in defiance of the odds. One that has stood the test of time, economic slumps, weather disasters and seasonal business is Charley’s Boat House Grill (nee Charley Brown’s). Owned and operated for forty years by the same family (which also owns The Outrigger Resort and The Gulfshore Grille and Cottage Bar), and managed since 1980 by Mike Stanton, Charley’s has also had the same chef since 1981 - island resident of 34 years, Tim Henkel.

Tim, like so many island transplants, grew up in Ohio. He graduated from Euclid High School and went to Bowling Green State University on a baseball scholarship. An injury put the kibosh on a promising career as a pro-ball pitcher. So with the scholarship gone, Tim turned in a new direction - to a tiny little island on the Southwest Florida coast.

Since the 1970’s, Tim’s family had been vacationing on Fort Myers Beach. His Uncle Dick and Aunt Dorothy Louth were early stakeholders on the island. "They had a condo at the Island Reef where we would stay. My uncle was the first person to build a house in the neighborhood behind The Church of the Ascension (Louth Terrace). When the baseball thing ended, I knew exactly where to go. I knew where I wanted to be.”

As soon as he arrived, he got right into the restaurant business. He knew he was going to like it. "You know how I could tell? It’s always busy. Every day we’re putting a party on. The party ends, and no matter what happens, the next day, we start another party. We remember what was right, and learn from whatever went wrong.” Adds Tim, "In the beginning, we had a lot to learn.”

Like Stanton, Tim started out working the grill, waiting on tables, and doing whatever needed to be done. This all-hands-on-deck approach has kept the management well connected to the staff and the customers, resulting in a high level of loyalty among those who come to dine there, and among those who serve them. "The guys in the kitchen have been here for fifteen years - Luis, Carlos, Roberto, Jose - and the servers Tony and Charlene has been here ten years or more. They all know the customers, they all know the menu.They all know what they’re doing.It’s like a big family - we laugh, we argue - just like a family.” His respect and appreciation for the crew is obvious. "Everybody does what needs to be done.” To emphasize the cooperative work atmosphere at Charley’s, Tim adds, "We don’t put too much stock into titles and positions here.”

All About The Food

No matter how nice or efficient the wait staff may be, no matter how comfortable the atmosphere is in the dining room that looks out on a canal and its attendant mangroves, no matter how beautiful the remodeling of the restaurant planned for next summer turns out, it is the taste, quality and presentation of the food that brings Charley’s customers back again and again, year after year, generation after generation. "We have loyal customers that have been coming here since the 1970s. We’ve had some vacationers here every night (of their visit),” along with all the locals and snowbirds who regularly dine there, obviously very gratifying to Henkel.

Dinner at Charley’s is special, but rarely are off-the-menu specials prepared. "No matter what day you come in for dinner, our menu is basically the same. If you liked something on the menu the last time you were here, you will almost always find it on the menu next time you come in.”Specials, when they are prepared, change about twice a month, and are listed directly on the menu. "We get all our fresh fish from Sanibel Seafood. I talk to them every morning to find out what has come in.” If they’ve got a fresh catch of something that sparks his culinary imagination, Tim might do something with that and offer it as a ‘verbal special’. "We try not to do too many different things too often.We know what works.”

Henkel says he does experiment though, based on suggestions and feedback about different dishes he has tried. "We have the Beach Chamber of Commerce membership luncheon every month, and I will try different things to see how they do. For instance, I tried a special dish with beef tips, and got excellent feedback from the Chamber people, so that’s now on the regular menu.”

When asked what entrees on the Charley’s Boat House Grill menu he would consider the most popular, Henkel said without hesitation, "Our barbecued ribs are the best. I make sure they get done exactly right every day. Another thing our customers know us for is our beef. We use certified Black Angus beef. We know we have the best. We know how to cook a steak.” Tim’s soon-to-be ten-year-old son Jonah ("He’s a Lego man,” his father says) told his dad that his favorite meal at Charley’s is the tuna steak. Henkel understands his son’s choice. "It’s outstanding; it has a fresh ginger-soy vinaigrette… it’s very, very good every single day.”

Charley’s Boathouse can seat up to 200 people, and Tim says they can accommodate walk-in parties of large numbers without skipping a beat. "Sometimes we have a walk-in party of fifteen, twenty, even thirty people who want service together,” Henkel says. "We can handle that as easily as a walk-in party of two. They get the same high level of service, no matter how many there are. No problem.Real simple.”

Tim also caters parties, on and off site, often at the Outrigger where they host many weddings and other celebratory functions. Many of Charley’s regular customers have held their anniversary, birthday, wedding, graduation and other parties at the restaurant itself. "We can accommodate up to 70 people for a private function,” Henkel wants his customers to know.

Change Coming Next Summer

As popular and successful as Charley’s is now, Tim is really excited about the upcoming changes that will take place next summer. The main entrance will shift from the south side to the north side of the building.Where an outdoor storage area sits now, there will be a canal-side patio for al fresco dining.

As Tim conducts a cook’s tour of the building while describing all the changes to be made, it must be mentioned that the sparkling cleanliness and neat-as-a-pin organization of the kitchen and storage areas is impressive. Back inside, in the part of the building called ‘the boathouse’, there will be a new sit-down bar (there has always been a fully stocked service bar), where there will be a special happy hour menu and entertainment on tap."This is a first for us,” Henkel says, remarking that they had enjoyed a lot of success all these years even though Charley’s was probably the only restaurant of its size in Lee County without a sit-down bar. "During season, it can be up to an hour to get seated, so the new bar will make that part of the experience way more fun. And,” he says with a big smile, "we will be open for lunch!” This gives Tim the opportunity to create a whole new menu, which he says is exciting in itself. In the 25 years of Tims tenure at Charleys, they have always only opened for dinner.

When asked to describe the ambience they hope to create in the new bar, Tim says it’ll be "kind of like Chops in Bonita, a great top-of-the-line steak house, nice bar. I go there. The owner and his wife come here for dinner.” This leads to a short list of places where Tim likes to go out to eat: Chops, Sonny’s BBQ off Winkler, and Matanzas on the Bay. Tim sings the praises of Chef Dave at Matanzas. "He’s been there 25-30 years. They’re like us… same location, same concept” of making necessary or creative changes without throwing tradition out the window. "Sometimes a new chef or GM will come in, make a lot of changes and take all the credit. It’s fun to be creative, but in the real world, you are doing this for 400 people every night. My job is to tweak what works and make sure we’re making money, and we do that by offering consistently great food and friendly, efficient service.”

Jo List

Charley’s Boat House Grill

6241 Estero Blvd.

Open Daily 5:00 to 9:30 PM

Phone: 239-765-4700

Website: boathouse