Sandy Stilwell Youngquist, owner of the new Keylime Bistro, is ready to bring her sense of fun and flare to Boca Grande. She has been doing that in Captiva for a number of years and has now expanded her special brand of hospitality magic to the north side of the Pass. She is delighted to be in Boca Grande and sees a bright future.
Sandy is not new to the island. She has been coming here for many years, and even credits it as a major part of her love story with husband, Tim Youngquist.
“I have this good friend who played matchmaker. She used to stay here and rent a condo on the beach, staying two weeks every year,” she recalled.
That friend thought she and Tim would have a lot in common, as they are both entrepreneurs and very active in their businesses. As it turned out the friend was right. The relationship grew deeper, and five years ago they were married. Between them they have five kids and 12 grandkids.
Tim owns Youngquist Brothers, Inc., a Fort Myers-based well drilling firm. After working with their father in residential well drilling, Tim and Harvey Youngquist established their own drilling business right after high school. The company initially drilled residential water wells. They then progressed to larger agricultural, and then municipal wells. Today, they are Florida’s leading contractor of deep injection well systems, the preferred alternative to safely discharge high volumes of excess water.
Sandy also worked in her parents’ business, and then started her own first company while she was still in high school. Her parents, Tom and Ellie Kolar, were early settlers of Cape Coral, and then bought land on Fort Myers Beach. That is where they built the Ramada Inn. Sandy and her siblings helped at the hotel, as well as the cabins down the road that belonged to their grandparents.
Sandy and Tim both grew up in the Fort Myers area and actually knew one another in middle school. Sandy remembers admiring the dashing Youngquist brothers.
“He was a little older than me, but he and his brother were the football stars. Then, fast forward all these years, and I’m in my 60s and he just turned 71 and these friends matched us. They figured that two people who are business people would really have a lot in common, which we do!”
They started coming to Boca Grande, which became a romantic spot for them. They would take Tim’s boat, The Driller, and go for a day of fishing or shopping, dinner and fun. This is still among their favorite things to do.
“We stay at Miller’s Marina a lot,” she said. “There usually are 10 or 12 of us and we go shopping, so we know all the stores very well. We go to all the restaurants and rent golf carts and have so many fun times. I have always thought that I would love to have a restaurant here. Then I found out The Loose Caboose was for sale. So I looked at it and I think it was the next day I decided I wanted to buy it. I really thought that Jacques (Boudreau) and Blanche (Vedette), the owners, were fabulous. As a matter of fact, Jacques worked for me for a short while as the transition began, but decided pretty quickly that he was ready to move on.”
Just as the sale was being finalized, Hurricane Ian hit the area. It devastated Sandy’s restaurants on Captiva Island, as well as the Captiva Inn, which she also owns. The timing seemed more than unfortunate and she knew she could have legally backed out of the agreement.
But Sandy tends to see things as blessings: She never seriously considered canceling the agreement.
“I knew there would be difficulties,” she admitted. But she also wanted to keep as many of her employees as possible working in the storm’s aftermath. She realized the cash flow from the new restaurant would be lower than initially anticipated due to the storm, but she would be able to open in Boca Grande long before she could open again in Captiva.
On that island Sandy owns Cantina Captiva, which serves Mexican and Southwestern food with “just the right bite,” as well as RC Otter’s Island Eats (a family restaurant), Sunshine Seafood Cafe and Wine Bar (specializing in local seafood and fine wine), Latte Da (serves homemade ice cream, features an old fashioned candy store and other fun things) and the original Keylime Bistro, which has music, a creative menu selection and award-winning Key lime pie.
In addition, Sandy owns a restaurant in the Keys, a professional center on Captiva and the Captiva Inn, a bed and breakfast that includes two large homes and a whole cluster of little cottages that are historically preserved from the 1950s.
Boca Grande now has the second Keylime Bistro in what will be at least a three restaurant “brand.” The third Keylime Bistro will be part of the upcoming expansion of the RSW airport. Sandy was invited to open a restaurant in the new terminal and is excited to see where this brand leads her.
“I had been asked before about opening up different locations, at different places. Then it occurred to me, if I can get The Loose Caboose, I could make this a Keylime Bistro. Then I started my branding. I am not saying I plan on having 50 of them, but it does create a little local brand, and I’ll also be able to sell my pies. I am trying to figure out how to do this.”
Sandy has been exploring the possibilities of ramping up production of the pies, but the company she has been talking to would require her to be selling 1,000 pies per month. “That’s a heck of a lot of pies,” she admitted. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get here, but in the meantime we can make them ourselves, but once you’ve made that mark, it’s mass production. I do believe I have something there!”
While visions of 1,000 pies a month dance in Sandy’s head, the Boca Grande Keylime Bistro is very much in progress. “My approach to getting this restaurant was that I want to go in and not make super big changes,” she said. “This has been a very successful restaurant for all these years, but I wanted to add the live music component, I thought that would be a nice thing. I love being able to go out at night and listen to music while I eat, and I thought this would be a perfect thing.” Music is now part of the Boca Grande Keylime Bistro’s ambiance day and night, with live music piped inside and outside so that it is never too glaring and never too soft.
“I would love to be able to be in the restaurants individually every day, saying hi to the customers,” she said. “But when you have that many restaurants, it’s virtually impossible. So I don’t really make the restaurant’s identity about me, like a typical couple that would run a restaurant, and be there if someone wanted to see the manager. I don’t have the ability to do that … I used to be able to do that, but it’s just I’ve grown so much. Still, I should be able to be there about two or three times a week.”
That is not to say Sandy is not involved in every aspect of the restaurant. She works hard at finding and keeping people capable of handling the day-to-day operations. In Boca Grande, the person she relies on primarily is Jovanny Rodriguez. He was once was a bartender at the Captiva Keylime Bistro but left to develop his career to a higher degree.
“When I was deciding to buy this restaurant, I went through my phone, through all my old employees, where they worked, what their job was and any pertinent information. I started praying about it and asking God to lead me to somebody who would really work there. And Jovanny came to my mind. I called him and he was willing to come here. I am really blessed to have a really good, reliable team.”
Originally, Jovanny’s role was, and still is planned to be, general operations manager of the entire group of restaurants. But when the storm changed the priorities, Sandy and Jovanny pivoted, and his job became focused on making the Boca Grande venue “hugely successful,” as Sandy said.
One way that is happening is by having Nehru Williams as chef and kitchen manager. He had been the manager of RC Otters, and formerly was the chef at the iconic Bubble Room on Captiva. He loves to cook, so when Jacques left, Nehru took over as top chef.
Another way Sandy plans to make the Boca Grande Keylime Bistro successful is to retain much of the flavor of The Loose Caboose intact. Knowing that so many people have good memories of The Loose Caboose, she wants to build on those memories.
The decor theme is decidedly railroad-oriented. The ice cream store still uses The Loose Caboose name and recipes. And the staff is largely the same. When specials become more prevalent, they hope to include old favorites from The Loose Caboose menu.
Eventually, Sandy plans to own a home on Gasparilla Island, or maybe Little Gasparilla. Either way, she is right at home with Island life.
In the back of her mind, there is a little voice telling her she should be slowing down, starting to take it easy. “I am not really sure if I want to continue working this hard forever,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a tough business. I think that’s probably what challenged me to want to get into the restaurant business. This is the business with one of the highest failure rates, and I like a challenge. Having all these restaurants has given me a huge amount of ability to give. I like that. I can still make money, be profitable and donate. And I think that’s the perfect recipe for being in business … and liking what you are doing.”