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Popular oceanfront cafe, at loggerheads with landlord in Jupiter, about to serve its last meals

BACK IN 1998, Palm Beach County took a chance on a new operator for food concessions at Carlin Park in Jupiter. Over the next 25 years, Duke’s Lazy Loggerhead Cafe grew into what regulars consider the best oceanfront restaurant in town.

But now, the county’s longtime partnership with the cafe operators is coming to an end, an ugly and public climax exacerbated by the wild West culture of social media.

The Lazy Loggerhead will stop serving breakfasts and lunches later this week because of a bitter disagreement with the county over the terms of its latest lease.

Owners Brian and Jennifer Wilson broke the news to customers last week by taping a sign the cafe’s main entrance explaining “the difficult decision to close our business” on Aug. 13:

“After decades of working together with Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation, they have made major changes to our contract making operating our business at this location no longer feasible,’’ says the sign.

Although the sign offers no other details about the changes, the Wilsons have told customers the county was dramatically raising the rent and adding liabilities they could not afford.

Owners Brian and Jennifer Wilson take a break in the kitchen of their Lazy Loggerhead Cafe on Aug. 10, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)

It wasn’t long before Lazy Loggerhead regulars lit up social media with online petitions and thousands of angry comments blaming the county for ruining a good thing.

By Monday afternoon, after indignant constituents had shared their disapproval in emails to County Commissioner Maria Marino, the county’s parks director fired back with his own email seeking to set the record straight.

“The misinformation that has been disseminated via emails, an online petition and social media is outrageously appalling,’’ Parks Director Eric Call wrote to the seven county commissioners.

“I have no explanation for their motivation or why (the Wilsons) would choose to disseminate incomplete information except that they want to grow a list of followers. In any case, it doesn’t appear they want to continue operating at Carlin Park and it is important that commissioners and administration have a complete and factual accounting of this matter.’’

Sign at the main entrance

According to Call’s email, the events unfolded like this:

With the cafe’s lease set to expire Aug. 31, the county in February issued a formal request for proposals. Of three companies bidding for the Carlin Park restaurant concession, the Wilsons’ Hawkhaven LLC was awarded the bid in April.

“At no time during the onsite meetings or during the proposal period did Hawkhaven complain about liability or the minimum rent amount being too high, however, they did mention concerns regarding a few issues such as the hours of operation, garbage disposal, and CPA reporting,’’ Call said.

“These requirements were either explained to them or were identified as terms that were already a part of the existing lease agreement that they have been operating under since 2013.’’

In May, the Wilsons asked for several changes that “the county would not agree to in any lease, or at this point in the process could not have been changed,’’ Call said.

Happy customers about to enjoy lunch at the Lazy Loggerhead Cafe on Aug. 10, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)

When the Wilsons in July informed the county they were not going to sign the contract, Call reached out to the couple for an explanation. The Wilsons, he said, mentioned concerns about a “security deposit, taking trash to the dumpster, operating hours and keeping the outdoor connected restroom clean.’’

Call said he offered to discuss their concerns with the county’s parks and real estate staff, but the Wilsons “indicated to me that actually, they had already discussed these issues and felt it was just time to move on. They indicated that it had been a long successful run, but were ready to move on to other things,’’ he said in the email to county commissioners.

“They said they really just wanted to thank me for taking a chance on them so long ago which allowed them to be so successful. I responded that it had been a great partnership and collectively we offered a great service to park visitors.’’

Before hanging up, Call said he asked the Wilsons to reconsider.

“But they indicated that they had thought it over and that they had already made the decision to close down,’’ he said.

Call, who was part of the county team that originally selected Hawkhaven in 1998 when they first submitted a proposal, said he was shocked and disappointed that the partnership unraveled so quickly.

He pointed out that the county over the years has paid for “significant capital improvements” to help increase profits at the Lazy Loggerhead Cafe – from new hurricane impact windows and decking to a canopy covering the outdoor seating area.

“We have lowered their rent, eliminated the monthly guarantee, abated payments during the pandemic and hurricanes, permitted them to sell beer/wine and made favorable arrangements for their business when special events occurred in Carlin Park,’’ he said.

‘’The ‘thank you’ they offered me for working with them all of these years appears to be disingenuous at best,’’ he said.

In 2021, when restaurants were trying to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, the county waived the Lazy Loggerhead’s annual rent and agreed to collect only the 7 percent of gross sales, or $70,768, as allowed in the lease, county records show.

In 2020, the cafe’s annual rent was $82,210 plus 8 percent of the annual gross sales, which worked out to $62,329.

In the new contract, the county wanted $6,500 a month ($78,000 a year) plus 8 percent of gross sales.

In a brief interview, Jennifer Wilson said the requirement to pay a guaranteed monthly rent instead of annual rent and the increase to 8 percent of gross sales were among issues that led to their decision to close.

“The rent goes up dramatically. There is a significantly larger amount of liability to us as a small business. It’s just not workable for us any longer to remain in business in this location,’’ she said.

Asked about the email Call sent to commissioners, she said: “We’re so disappointed. It was not an accurate representation” of the events that led to Hawkhaven’s decision.

Marino, the district commissioner, forwarded Call’s email to constituents who’d emailed her over the weekend to complain. Call’s explanation appears to have assuaged some of those critics.

“Social media has painted the picture of Loggerhead Cafe as the victim,’’ Lynne DeChiaro wrote to Marino. “Your response implied that Loggerhead is involved in misconstruing the facts. If true, that is just not fair after reading your well written, detailed explanation.’’

“I’m baffled as to why this has been miscommunicated so badly and I’m sad that Duke’s will be closing,’’ said Tim Kerr of Jupiter, referring to the eatery’s original name, “Duke’s Lazy Loggerhead Cafe.’’ (“Duke” is Brian Wilson’s nickname.)

“Sad to see the misinformation traveling the internet,’’ Jupiter resident Jim Stanton wrote to Marino. “Moreover, why would the Loggerhead perpetuate the negativity? Very sad to see them go, but they should be going out on a 25-year high, not this way.’’

Alec Wisch of Palm Beach Gardens asked Marino to arrange “a sit down” with the Wilsons and the county in hopes of finding a way for the Lazy Loggerhead Cafe to continue operating.

Marino said she is not interested.

“There is no amount of cajoling the county can do,’’ she wrote to Wisch. “The WIlsons chose to walk away, even before their lease runs out at the end of the month.’’

Jennifer Wilson, when asked if she and her husband might one day open the Lazy Loggerhead Cafe at a new location, smiled and said, “You never know. We love what we do and we’re too young to retire.’’

Here is Call's full email to county commissioners:

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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