A Lower Keys landmark changed hands this week when a Wisconsin restaurateur bought Mangrove Mama's, the tucked-away and invitingly ramshackle eatery at Mile Marker 20 on Upper Sugarloaf Key.
Dane Wisnosky, with his daughter, Kayla, bought the business and the property on Monday from father and son Keith and Mark Wurn, absentee owners who came to the Florida Keys about four times a year, and left the restaurant's daily operations to employees, Dane Wisnosky said.
Wisnosky owned a casual-dining restaurant and bar in Minocqua, Wis., for 11 years before selling it recently in order to move south.
"I'm done shoveling snow," he said, adding that he looked at several potential business ventures in Sarasota, Fort Myers and Key West's Duval Street. "Mangrove Mama's wasn't even on our list, and we didn't know it was for sale until our last day in town a few months ago."
The Wisnoskys paid $825,000 for the historic business that has operated as Mangrove Mama's since 1968, Dane Wisnosky said.
The two buildings that make up Mangrove Mama's were constructed around 1919 as a rail stop and a station agent's residence for the Overseas Railroad, according to the restaurant's website.
Henry Flagler's railroad did not survive the devastating Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, but the buildings at Mile Marker 20 weathered that and all subsequent storms just fine.
The property became a gas station, snack bar and general pit stop for weary travelers wending their way to Key West in the 1950s, and in 1968 acquired the moniker that still identifies it.
A Tennessee farmer named Terry Bell bought the property in 1968 and operated it as a restaurant in the winter months when his harvesting was finished. Local residents started calling the place Mangrove Mama's, as that was the name of Bell's boat. The boat was always trailered out front, and the only identifying landmark for the place, the website states.
"I feel proud to own a part of Keys history," Wisnosky said Wednesday, adding he is looking forward to becoming part of the Lower Keys community.
He said he intends to add breakfast to the menu seven days a week to fill a morning void in the area.
"Geiger Key serves breakfast on weekends, but there's really no other breakfast place within 10 miles either direction," he said.
He is also planning to introduce his own successful recipe for thin-crust pizza and some national musical acts.
"I ran a blues fest for 10 years at my old place," he said, "and I want to bring some national touring acts down here, while also keeping local bands that play here."
Wisnosky said the food quality, presentation and timeliness of service will improve immediately. The staff will remain in place, but could see some changes in job titles and responsibilities, he said.
"We want to offer comfort food at local prices. I really want to cater to the locals, because they're the ones who keep you alive," he said.
Wisnosky also bought a home on Big Pine Key, and is an avid scuba diver who wants to learn more about saltwater fishing.
"We're seeing a lot of people buying property that they'll actually use, which is a great sign," said Realtor Claude Gardner of Prudential Knight and Gardner, who brokered the deal with Realtor Greg MacLaren of Internet Realty. "And Capital Bank financed the purchase, which is important because we had been seeing a lot of local lenders shying away. That's no longer the case."
Wisnosky's investment in the Lower Keys, and his plan to be a hands-on owner of a local business, is a reassuring sign for the Keys' real estate market, Gardner said.