Profile: Margarita Santiago

■  BY SUE ERWIN

If you’ve had dinner recently at Fusion – the island’s newest restaurant – you’ve likely witnessed Food and Beverage Manager Margarita Santiago bustling about the establishment and making sure everything is running as smoothly as possible.

Speaking to one staff member in Spanish while simultaneously answering questions in English during our interview, this energetic multitasker obviously wears many hats at her current job. Margarita always seems to be smiling and has a contagious cheery demeanor. Answering phone calls in the office of the Boca Grande Resort, she said she also handles the payroll at the hotel.

“I try help to out with everything at the resort. I’m always happy to help in the day-to-day operations,” she said.

She is proud of the phenomenal staff at the restaurant and enthusiastic when she speaks about the variety of items on the menu. The new owners have vast restaurant experience and found that the Boca Grande establishment offered a rare and unique opportunity. The Boca Grande Resort, one of the buildings attached to the property, has 20 quaint rooms available and offers daily, weekly and monthly reservations. Margarita said that since the new owners have taken over, the resort has stayed full, and some of the rooms are already booked for next season.

“Word is spreading quickly about this charming little place,” she said.

Margarita was born in Long Island, New York, but she grew up in Fort Myers. Her father owned grocery stores and American and Italian cuisine restaurants in New York and Florida, so she learned how to run a business from the ground up from him. He visited Florida when she was a young girl, and he liked it so much he decided to move the family to Fort Myers and open up an Italian restaurant called “La Gondola.” The family has since sold that establishment.

After finishing high school, she attended Florida State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in management. Her goal was to go on to medical school.

“But then once I took chemistry, I knew right away that it wasn’t for me,” she said. After college, she worked as a property manager for a few different businesses in Fort Myers. “I loved it, because I’m a people person and I really enjoy meeting and talking with new people all the time,” she said.

She also worked as a manager at several country clubs in the Fort Myers area. She ended up discovering Boca Grande when a close friend, Patrick Vollmer, was running a restaurant on the island and asked for her help. “I was his business partner for almost six years, and then that restaurant closed,” she said.

Fusion opened in February of thhis year. Margarita said the restaurant is in an interesting transition, and the owners plan to extend the hours of operation next year. The restaurant is located on the Boca Grande Resort property near the north end of the island at 5800 Gasparilla Road. It features a unique mixture of Indian, Mexican and Thai cuisine. “5800 Island Café” (located beneath Fusion on the same property) offers brunch on Sundays starting at 7 a.m. and a full breakfast and lunch menu from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. An outdoor tiki bar exists downstairs that is open in the evenings.

And locals will be happy to hear that the popular Boca Bande performs there regularly and will be playing this Saturday evening, April 22.

Sanjay Patel, operating manager and one of the owners of Fusion, said his associates purchased the property in December. His team eagerly worked to prepare the restaurant to open, aiming for a February date. A few cosmetic changes were made to the décor, and more are planned after season winds down.

“We’re really looking forward to getting more renovations completed downstairs over the summer,” Margarita said.

Margarita’s fiancé, Jeremy Michaels, also works at Fusion. He is the sushi chef. He’s also the office manager at Park Avenue Massage during the day and comes to the restaurant at night. They met while attending Florida State University.

“He has a degree in information technology, so he is our IT guy here and was very helpful when we first set our system up,” she said. They are planning on getting married in Hawaii this summer.

Margarita and Jeremy live just off the island in Rotonda West with their 14-year-old Chihuahua, Piper.

“He was my mother’s dog, so he is very special to me,” she said.

When asked about whom she admires most in life, she quickly replied without any hesitation. “My mother is my hero – I am who I am today because of her,” she said. “She was a very beautiful, caring and giving woman.”

When Margarita is not working, she spends a lot of her free time running. She ran track in high school but hasn’t done it much since. She picked it up again after battling an illness a few years ago, and she found that it greatly helped alleviate the pain she was experiencing.

She is also a major fan of the television show, “The Walking Dead.” And, of course, shopping is a regular thing on her to-do list.

“Oh, and I love horror movies – I love to be scared,” she said.

She likes to try out the latest restaurants whenever she discovers that a new one has opened, but she doesn’t make it back to Fort Myers very often these days.

“I love it here and this is home now,” she said.

One of her most prized possessions is a signed copy of President George W. Bush’s “Portraits of Courage.”

“I knew him from my years of working here, and he sent me a copy. I did not expect it, and I was so honored to receive it.”

Margarita worked at Park Avenue Massage in the past, and that is where she met him and took photos with the former president.

“He really is a very warm and wonderful man … he’s so friendly,” she said. Her mother is from Spain and her father is from Puerto Rico.

When she was 14, Margarita spent a year in Puerto Rico helping her mom take care of her grandmother. Spanish was her first language, since it was spoken on a daily basis in her childhood home. It wasn’t until she started school that she learned English.

Fusion is open for dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. seven nights per week. Check out their Facebook page for current menu items and specials.