October 11, 2017

BIG PINE KEY — In the midst of the daunting task of cleanup and recovery following last month’s devastating hurricane, Big Pine residents and those from nearby areas have somewhere to go to commiserate over a bite to eat.

Florida Keys Café, which is owned and operated by 15 members of the White family, some of whom lost their homes to the storm, reopened Oct. 3 to the delight of regulars and others who could surely use a break from the multitude of problems Hurricane Irma caused for them.

Melissa White, a server at the restaurant, which has been open for about four and a half years, says she’s happy to be back to meet, greet and serve locals who are still in a state of shock.

“It makes me so happy. I was so excited to open this morning,” she said. “Our locals are so happy. They have come in all day and they’re so excited.”

It hasn’t been easy for the White family, who is living in cramped conditions at a mainland hotel and face early wake-ups and a long commute to keep the restaurant going.

Despite the hardship she shares with fellow Big Pine locals, White is dedicated to staying open.

“We’re staying all the way in Homestead right now, because that’s the closest we can get,” she said, adding that she and her family get up at 3 a.m. to open the café by 7 a.m. “There’s nowhere to eat up here, so we’re going to stay open as long as possible.”

Luckily, White reports that the restaurant sustained relatively minor damage, as opposed to much of Big Pine.

“The café actually looked pretty good. We got about an inch of water, so the water wasn’t a big issue,” she said, also detailing minor damage to ceiling tiles and the roof.

White’s home, and the homes of many of her regulars, was a different story. But that hasn’t affected her attitude toward her job, which, she says, is what keeps her going.

“The whole Avenues is ruined, and that’s where we lived, (but) I’m really happy that our job is up and running because I love seeing our locals every day,” she said. “The last few weeks not working, I went crazy. I think the whole family is happy; this is what we love to do.”

She says she has both seen and felt the effects Irma has had on the entire community, and both she and many of her regulars are at a loss as to what comes next.

“A lot of people are clueless, to tell you the truth. I’m totally clueless, too,” White said. “We lost our home. I mean I have a job and I’m making money, but I don’t make enough money to get a home. Plus, there are not many homes that are renting anymore.”

Though the struggle to recover after Irma has been overwhelming at times, White says she and her family aren’t going anywhere.

“We’ll never leave,” she said. “Keys Strong. No matter what, we’ll figure out what we have to do to stay here.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com