BY MANDY MILES
You know the place. It catches motorists' attention from the southbound lane of U.S. 1 at Mile Marker 28.5. For years, the waterfront property has stood sentinel over Newfound Harbor on the gulfside of Little Torch Key.
Kiki's Sandbar recently replaced Parrotdise on Barry Avenue, and while the sign out front warns diners to enter at their own risk while training takes place inside, the kitchen, bar and dining room staff at Kiki's Sandbar worked like a well-oiled machine on a recent afternoon, just a week and a half after the new restaurant quietly opened.
"We're still training now, but we're open for business," said Mike Schulte, who opened Kiki's Sandbar with his wife, Kim.
"We opened quietly. We're not doing any advertising yet. We're working out the kinks and tweaking things," said Kim Schulte, who added that the menu at Kiki's will continue expanding to about three times its current size.
But in the Keys, few things happen quietly or without the surrounding neighborhood -- and islands -- knowing something within hours.
Sunburned patrons who already looked like regulars sauntered up to the bar in Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. One couple had just pulled up in their boat, and docked it at the end of Kiki's pier.
"I think the word is already out that this is going to be a hot place," Mike Schulte said, adding that there's certainly room for a waterfront restaurant in the Lower Keys.
Kiki's Sandbar is one of few options for residents living between Sugarloaf and Big Pine.
And the Schultes offer plenty of craft beers for the thirsty masses.
The two are veteran restaurateurs who are in the process of selling their interest in three restaurants in Wilmington, Del. When the paperwork is finished, the Schultes will still own one Delaware eatery and one Florida Keys location.
And location is everything in the island chain that dangles like an afterthought from the southern tip of mainland Florida.
Kim Schulte opened her first restaurant 25 years ago. It was a hot dog stand on the beach in Margate at the South Jersey Shore. Mike Schulte has a degree in hotel and restaurant management from University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Kim Schulte has had an experienced eyed on the stilt building at 183 Barry Ave., Little Torch Key, ever since she and her husband bought a home on the same island 16 years ago, when they became regulars at what was then called simply The Sandbar, a predecessor of Parrotdise.
When Parrotdise closed about a year and a half ago, the Schultes started making plans for a casual restaurant with an emphasis on seafood, boat access, killer views, indoor and outdoor dining and, most importantly, prices that are accessible to everyone.
Kiki's Sandbar is the result, and based on the growing afternoon crowd, their planning is quickly paying off.
Executive Chef Matthew Cox spent four years as executive chef at Square One in Key West, and most recently ran a restaurant outside Boston.
Cox insists on fresh, not frozen, seafood, meat and vegetables, and already has herbs and tomatoes growing right outside.
"He makes his own salad dressings, dipping sauces, you name it," said Kim Schulte while describing Kiki's oyster po' boy, which includes oysters that have never been frozen.
The Schultes spent the month of July last year on a southbound roadtrip eating oysters.
"We wanted to find - and serve - the best oysters on the East Coast," Mike Schulte said.
The Kiki's menu features an oyster po' boy sandwich as well as a fried oyster appetizer.
Cox also makes his own hummus, cures and smokes his own bacon and smokes his own prime rib and other meats.
Fish is locally caught for the mahi or snapper sandwiches, fish tacos and grilled mahi dinner served with key lime rum butter.
"I hand roll all the pasta here, and will offer a daily fish special as well as a daily vegetarian or vegan special," said Cox.
"When we met Matt, we were blown away with what he can do," said Kim Schulte, thrilled with their new staff.
"We've got the best of the best," she said, adding that they received more than 150 applications from would-be servers and bartenders.
"We're technically New American cuisine, heavy on seafood," she said.
And Cox adds his own flair to each dish, such as the corn, conch and red pepper fritters, the lobster bisque, the Maine lobster reuben, grilled smoked ribeye steak and jalapeno pappardelle pasta with shrimp and cherry tomatoes.
For landlubbers, there's also a grilled half Romaine heart salad, a teriyaki chicken sandwich, pecan and grape chicken salad and a huge Angus burger.
Prices range from $6 to $30.
"We're hoping to start serving breakfast in a few months once we get everything worked out," Kim Schulte said, pointing to the sweeping views of the gulf that surround the restaurant.
"We get amazing sunsets out back over Marsh Harbor, and spectacular sunrises out front."
The restaurant just got a new tiki roof over half the building, and another is coming for the back patio, Kim Schulte said.
There are tables outside on the sand, as well as upstairs in the dining room and on the patio.
Happy hours are from 4 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to closing time - 1 a.m. on weekends and midnight Sunday through Thursday.
"And we'll serve food until we close," Cox said, adding that the late-night menu currently features 13 items and is still growing, along with the rest of the menu and the wine list.
"We're going to finalize the wine list this week," said Kim Schulte.
It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. And he Schultes clearly know what they're doing.
Comment cards are already placed at each table, tools the couple has valued in every restaurant venture they've had.
"We read every one of them because we want to know what we can do better," Kim said. "We want to hear from people."
And they want the bulk of those people to be locals.
"We need our locals, and we know we have to take care of them with a locals discount and prices that start out affordable," Mike Schulte said.
Locals get 10 percent off everything, and everyone is eligible for a Kiki's rewards card.
For every $250 spent, the customer gets a $20 gift certificate.
"We're here for the long haul," he said, adding that his wife has always been good at evaluating restaurants and determining the date of their demise.
But Kiki's Sandbar, named for its pelican mascot, is here to stay.