JEANNIFER AND KEVIN SHEA
By Sharon Michalik Photography by Nick TrailO pen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner even days a week, Bayou Joe’s Marina and Grill is a part of Panama City’s history – owned and operated by Jeannifer and Kevin Shea since 2008. The entrepreneurs are serving up history, memories, and a feeling of “Old Florida” with every savory plate, combined with the best views of the sailboats docked at neighboring marinas and Massalina Bayou’s drawbridge. “We’ve got customers who have been coming here for years, sitting in the same spot, ordering the same things off the menu,” explains Jeannifer. “Their faces light up when the food comes and that’s priceless no matter how often it happens because we know we’re not just serving food here; this is about being a happy place for people.”
Bayou Joe’s Restaurant was constructed on stilts and sits atop the water.
Guests are mere inches away from the water’s edge – it feels like sitting in a boat house. It is off the beaten path but well known to longtime Panama City residents who have frequented it as a restaurant since the 90s and knew it before as Etheridge Marina.
“We had that experience and we knew what
we were walking into and I knew his capabilities.”
The restaurant purchase got Jeannifer and Kevin, both Jacksonville natives, off the “corporate crazy train” and into entrepreneurship – although they both wryly note being in business for themselves brings its own special brand of craziness.“ “When he brought the idea up, that we were going to get rid of the corporate world and buy this business as a family, I thought he was crazy,” Jeannifer remembers.
“Yeah, I had to do the ultimate sales pitch,” adds Kevin, noting that they had all the relevant experience needed – both worked in the hospitality industry for many years. “We had that experience and we knew what we were walking into and I knew his capabilities,” Jeannifer nods towards her husband, who is chef, catering manager, boat slip supervisor, and chief of marketing. “The statistics are rough for new restaurant owners and most fail within the first year but I new we weren’t going to fail.”
So tell us how you landed here at Bayou Joe’s.
Kevin: It was April Fool’s Day nine years ago. I had heard about this place since 1995 from friends and then I heard it was for sale. We were both working for Marriott at the time and I just felt like it was time to do this together.
Jeannifer: It was an established business, so that helped a lot. There’s a fantastic customer base here and we knew we could count on that.
With that established base and history, did you make many menu changes?
Kevin: We were greeted by many people who said ‘don’t you change a thing!’ and they meant it. With our corporate background though we analyzed the menu and little by little we began tweaking and doing things our way and the response has been fantastic. There are some core things we haven’t touched though. Loyal customers will continue to find the famous Trash Burgers and Garbage Potatoes on the menu as they always have been in keeping with tradition, however, the toppings change daily based on the chef’s preference.
Jeannifer: One of the things we have worked on is to adjust the menu to reflect the changing dietary needs that people have. We have a lot of medical professionals who eat here. We’ve adjusted menu items to be available blackened, grilled or fried and we can adjust for food allergies. We’ve got no-salt and gluten-free options and even options for those with seafood allergies.
So how does a busy couple split all the jobs in a restaurant?
Jeannifer: Well we have children (22, 13 and 4) so we had to work on scheduling. I open and take the morning shift so I’m front of the house, waiting tables, managing banking, and accounting. Kevin works afternoons and evenings and he handles catering, boat slips, and marketing. We have it split and defined pretty well.
And where does “date night” fit into that schedule?
Jeannifer: Well, we’re in the offseason right now so we try to have coffee together in the morning and we try to have dinner a few times a week. We definitely try to make time for date night whether we are going out to eat or cooking together.
Kevin: That’s when we like to work on something new, a new twist on something when we’re cooking together. So, we try it out at home before we bring it to the restaurant.
Have there been any surprises along this journey or did it all work out as planned?
Kevin: I think people going into business for themselves have visions of grandeur. People think ‘I will be my own boss, I will punch my own clock’ when I work for myself.
Jeannifer: The truth is, you’re the single person responsible for everything and there’s no clocking out.
How does working together impact your relationship as husband and wife?
Jeannifer: We absolutely depend upon each other. We’ve had to learn to separate our relationship at work from our relationship at home but we’ve managed to do that. It’s great to know that the person you’re in business with is the one person that you really trust and the one person who really supports you. We understand each other and that makes such a difference.
With things going so well are there plans to expand?
Kevin: This is a very unique site with a submerged land lease. There’s a unique, very tiny kitchen and it’s difficult to do what we do, to cook everything from scratch, for the size we are. If we were to expand we’d have to completely redo the kitchen.
Jeannifer: I think it’s important to point out that we don’t pre-cook anything. Everything is made to order, even on our busiest day. So, the bottom line is, we are taking care of our customers in the best way possible so we think we’re a good size just the way we are.”
Bayou Joe’s is located at 112A E. 3rd Court in Panama City and opens daily at 7 a.m. and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More information about their location and menu can be found on their website: bayoujoes.com
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