ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- Mario Schoenfelder said he is overwhelmed by the affection and loyalty Anna Maria islanders have shown toward his closed Rod & Reel Pier Restaurant.
The restaurant and pier, which date to 1947 at 875 N. Shore Dr., Anna Maria, have been closed since Sept. 29 after a fire started inside the walls of one kitchen.
Schoenfelder, president of the family owned company that bought the colorful restaurant in 1997, said Friday repairs will cost roughly $200,000 and are 65 percent completed. He said the restaurant could be open by Christmas or slightly before if everything goes smoothly.
"I hope it will happen before Christmas, but I can't guarantee it," said Schoenfelder, of Berlin, Germany. "It's hard to know exactly when we will be done because with an old building like this, well, you start repairing it and open a wall and see this is a little rotten and it goes on and on. It's been a lot more than we expected, but we have so many areas that are now brand new."
Whenever it reopens, Schoenfelder said he will have a renewed respect for his iconic restaurant sitting out on the bay side of Anna Maria Island, served by roughly 30 employees now being helped by community donations.
"The day after the fire I got emails
in Germany from people on the island, saying: 'We are sorry' and wanting to know how they could help me," Schoenfelder said from his Anna Maria vacation home from where he will depart for Germany in about a week. "I want to reassure everyone it will be back just the way they remember it. We are upgrading everything but the look and feel."
The fire was probably caused by 20-year-old insulation grown ineffective behind the kitchen walls, unable to soften the intense heat from the ranges, Schoenfelder said.
Fire officials called it "radiant heat buildup."
After the fire, Schoenfelder, whose family also has a lease agreement on the nearby city-owned City Pier Restaurant through 2020, flew to the United States from Germany to meet with Anna Maria building official Bob Welch, who advised Schoenfelder the restaurant should be brought up to code for electrical, plumbing, walls, roof, windows and even bathrooms.
"We had to build a restroom that could serve guests with disabilities," Schoenfelder said. "We enlarged one of the bathrooms so a wheelchair could fit in. I am fine with that. By the way, I am now a proud grandfather and, in one bathroom, we even built a baby-diaper changing station. I like that."
All electrical wiring and circuit boxes are new as is the plumbing, windows, walls and roof, Schoenfelder said. The old structure had nooks and crannies with rotten wood revealed when inspected. They were fixed too, but not changed, Schoenfelder said.
"The floor plan will be the same, but it will be all new," Schoenfelder said. "Some of the work we could have delayed for a year or so, which I considered because I know the employees need to get back to work, but I decided, 'Why close in a year or two? It's better to get it done now.' That's the approach I have taken.
"We had some equipment damaged by the water from the fire hoses, not the fire," Schoenfelder added. "Two fryers are gone, one range is gone, two ice machines are gone."
As work progressed on the building where they work, Joan Carter, co-owner of J & J Graphics Screenprinting, 9701 Gulf Dr., Anna Maria, said she has turned in $11,115 in donations as of Friday to All Island Denominations for Pier employees.
For a $20 donation, she's sold 500 funny T-shirts that humorously change the Pier's menu to account for the fire in the kitchen, including charred grouper instead of blackened. The punch line on the light blue T-shirt says, "Established in 1947, got smoked in 2013."
She takes about $10 out from each shirt for her costs.
She still has some T-shirts left and will stop giving them out when the restaurant reopens, she said Friday.
"This whole thing has been successful beyond my wildest thoughts because of community support," Carter said.
Carter gives the shirts away to Pier employees, she said.
"I know we have so far distributed thousands of dollars to help out-of-work Pier employees pay bills and we are continuing," said the Rev. Gary Batey of All Island Denominations, which is a micro-social service agency for needy island residents, comprised of several island churches. Batey is pastor of Roser Community Memorial Church, one of the All Island Denominations contributor churches, on Pine Avenue in Anna Maria.
"All Island Denomination couldn't distribute the money right to the employees, but it met needs," Batey added. "When someone calls us with an unpaid utility bill, we make a payment to their account. We give the money to a landlord or a utility company. We also have gasoline vouchers through Jessie's Island store."
All Island Denominations has no office or paid help, Batey said. What they essentially have is Jackie Meaker, a volunteer who handles the phone calls from the needy on the island, Batey said. Meaker has never had such a large assignment as the Pier employees.
"Jackie spent 17 hours on the phone handling calls back and forth," Batey said.
A bilingual volunteer is helping with Spanish-speaking restaurant employees, Batey added.
Schoenfelder said he is amazed at the T-shirt sales.
"I am so happy how the community has supported our employees," Schoenfelder said. "We have good employees. Most of our employees have been with us a long time. When customers come in, they see the same faces. That's what makes a restaurant great."
Schoenfelder and his general manager are trying to figure out if they should just reopen the instant they can or make it a grand event, like a ribbon cutting.
Schoenfelder laughs when it's suggested people would camp overnight to be the first ones into the newly repaired restaurant.
"A Rod and Reel Black Friday," Schoenfelder said with a laugh. "Well, we're talking about doing something special, but we aren't sure what. We're just taking it step by step right now. We still have a ways to go."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.