Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Pelican Bend is Still the Same & That’s a Good Thing

Photos by Scott H. Shook | Debbie and Mike Cooper, circa 1996.

One of the most famous and enduring family-owned restaurants in the area is Pelican Bend on the Isle of Capri. The beloved local landmark has been serving up delicious seafood for 40 years.

Before it became the thriving seafood emporium it is today, the old-Florida style building was the home of Poor Paul’s marina, a ramshackle operation in the heart of the tiny fishing village.

“It was rough and rowdy,” said Pelican Bend owner Mike Cooper. “It had a pool table, a pinball machine and an old air conditioner hanging out of the wall that worked sometimes. They sold a little bit of food—some sandwiches. It was more of a pool hall, and they sold bait. They had a little skiff outback. The parking lot had some old boat trailers in it was kind of overgrown and weedy. They rented the two apartments down there; the one is now Beau Middlebrook’s (Real Estate) office. They rented those to the fishermen and vacationers.

“We took it and just hauled ‘er out. We took everything to the walls and scraped up the tile. We started as fresh as we could. This building’s been here since the 1950s.”

Cooper credits his late father, Mickey Cooper, with having the vision for Pelican Bend. 

“We started here in 1979. Mickey, my dad, had a business split and moved the whole family from Tennessee—and some from Oklahoma—and said, ‘We’re going to buy an island and sell some seafood and charter fish.’ It sounded good. That was the plan coming down.”

The Coopers had a good role model for their business success. Jim and Eydie’s, owned by Butch and Eydie Daniels, had a huge following on Isle of Capri and beyond when the Coopers discovered the island.

“It was the hot spot,” Cooper remembers. “When we pulled up, we would hear their microphone every night. Everybody would be tailgating in Jim and Eydie’s parking lot. And we sat and listened to their microphone calling parties from their parking lot night after night. ‘One of these days we’re going to be calling people in,’” Cooper remembered thinking. “They were rocking.”

Daniels closed up shop and moved to North Carolina. Cooper figures Daniels had just been in the restaurant business long enough that it was wearing thin. 

“He wanted to move and change his program,” Cooper explained. “And that was it. He sold it and moved to North Carolina. They were a fun bunch. They were great neighbors and we miss them still.”

Mickey Cooper recognized the opportunity and purchased the former Poor Paul’s marina in 1980. 

“Mickey just said we’re going to open up a little restaurant and that was it,” Mike said. “He was in the textile business in Tennessee. Jackie and Randi and Sunny came from Oklahoma. And they had run a little bar in Oklahoma called Cock of the Walk. And they had a little bit of restaurant experience. So, we took what they knew. And Mick knew what he liked. He was a big seafood fan. And we went from there.”

Jackie was Mickey’s sister, and a legend at the Pelican Bend with her big smile and Southern accent. 

“My Aunt Jackie died last October,” Cooper said. “She was always a character here. Everybody still asks for her. Sunny and Randi are her daughters. Matthew is Sunny’s husband. So he’s a big part of it here.”

Success wasn’t immediate for the Coopers. Mickey was not a believer in advertising. So the Pelican Bend team built their clientele a meal at a time.

Debbie and Mike Cooper today.

“It was a struggle. We sat here and worked on it. Mick never would advertise much. So we started with word of mouth and have kept it that way. The first year or so we weren’t ready for much business anyway. We were all kinda getting it all figured out. But it’s been a steady increase since then.”

Now, especially during the busy winter season, customers know they may wait an hour or longer to hear their names called over the microphone, just like customers did at Jim and Eydie’s back in the 1970s. 

Sitting in the restaurant’s dining room, with beautiful Johnson’s Bay as her backdrop, family matriarch Annie Cooper explains why customers are willing to wait. 

“I don’t think anybody else, any restaurant, has what we have,” said Annie Cooper. “They don’t mind the wait because of the setting we have here.”

“We’ve got that bay,” said Mike Cooper, nodding in agreement.

Annie Cooper turns 88 this year. In the 1980s, she waited tables at the restaurant. Then she spent many years as a fixture at the register. Now she tends to the food ordering and has less of a public presence.

“We had too many people who wanted to do it,” Annie said of the register job. “So I’m doing my ordering still. I don’t do all of it. Matthew does the wine. I do the food, most of it.”

“She’s amazing,” said Debbie Cooper of her mother-in-law Annie. Debbie runs Pelican Bend with her husband Mike. “She does the ordering. She enjoys her routine every day. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. She’s a lot of fun. She really keeps an eye on things.”

There’s no denying the role that fresh seafood plays in the success of Pelican Bend. Mickey’s philosophy was “plenty of seafood at a decent price,” a credo the Coopers have lived by for 4 decades. But it’s the Cooper family that makes Pelican Bend so special to so many people.

“We’ve been here a long time,” Mike Cooper said. “Everybody likes to come back and see the faces and see the crew. That’s as good a compliment as you can get when the families come back and say, ‘You’ve been part of our Florida vacation for 20 years now.’ We had people when we burned down in 1992, we had people who pulled up in the parking lot and cried in the parking lot because Pelican Bend was gone.”

Besides rebuilding after the fire, the Coopers have had to put Pelican Bend back together after hurricanes Wilma in 2005 and Irma in 2017. Debbie Cooper remembers her father-in-law Mickey’s leadership during those tough times.

“After the hurricanes, we would all meet out here and we’d talk and he’d say, ‘Come on. We’re gonna make this place rock again.’ And we’d put it all back together. ‘We’re going to make it work again,’ he’d say. Michael, of course, is instrumental in pulling it all together.”

“We’ve pulled through a couple of ‘em,” Mike Cooper concurred.

The beloved chickee hut, where Mickey loved to “hold court,” was leveled during Wilma.

“The chickee hut got knocked flat by Wilma,” Mike Cooper said, “We had a big crane in the parking lot. The boats were all sunk. The crane would reach across the parking lot, over the chickee hut and pick those big boats up out of the water and set ‘em on trailers so we could get those wrecked boats outta here. Mick talked to the crane guys and we took all the palm fronds off and the crane operator strapped up to the roof of the chickee hut and picked up the whole roof of the chickee hut and sat it down in the parking lot. 

“We dug out all the poles. Me and Stevie and Mitch and captain JR put the new poles in and sawed ‘em all off. Then the crane came back and picked up the roof of the chickee hut and moved it over and set it right down on the new poles. The frame is still the same today. We re-thatch the roof every 7 to 8 years.”

The chickee hut is a favorite feature of Pelican Bend. It’s where folks enjoy a drink and fellowship while waiting for their names to be called for a table at night. It’s also very popular for the vigorous lunch crowd it accommodates. But it’s hey-day was when Mickey was still around.

“Everybody just loved him,” Debbie Cooper said. “He’s been gone since 2007.”

Mitch Cooper tells a story at Pelican Bend’s famous chickee bar.

“I always say it was like working for Elvis,” Mike Cooper said of his gregarious dad. “There was no telling what new idea he was going to come up with just out of the blue. He told his stories out in the chickee—whether they had any truth to them—and he had a following. He held court down there every day. All his buddies.”

One of his best friends was the famous golfer and golf announcer Ken Venturi. Venturi loved Mickey and enjoyed fitting in with the locals.

Ken Venturi was one of Mickey’s great pals,” Mike Cooper said. “He and his wife Beau were here all the time. They were part of the star power that used to be around here. He was a famous person. Mick was the king and Ken was part of the court.”

Mike Cooper said his son Steven is the future of Pelican Bend. The restaurant was already going strong when Steven was born 31 years ago. It’s obvious that he has his finger on the pulse of everything Pelican Bend. He appreciates everything about the family’s restaurant.

“It’s been kind of magical, to grow up on this island and have all of this at our disposal is really a blessing,” Steve Cooper said. “I’ve been able to jump off the school bus every day, hang out with my grandpop. I’d hang out with all the boys, and they all loved me. Every day was fishing, or swamp buggies right down the road. It was great. To be able to fish off the dock every day after school and drag my fish through the restaurant so everyone could see them. It was awesome. It was great. And I was always able to get chicken fingers whenever I wanted while I was growing up. 

“Working here was a total blast. Getting to meet everyone and hear all the stories. And I got lucky enough to fall in love with fishing. It’s been great. I wouldn’t trade this place for the world. I’d like to keep it going another 50 years.”

Mike and Debbie Cooper smile when they tell about their son dragging his catch through the dining room.

“He’d catch a snook out at the dock and come dragging it in the restaurant proud as he could be,” Mike Cooper said, “Dragging it right through the restaurant to show all of us.”

“We have customers still who tell us that story,” Debbie Cooper said.

It always comes back to family—and teamwork—at Pelican Bend.

“Annie is mom, Mickey’s wife,” Mike Cooper said. “Me and Mitch are brothers. Stevie is my boy; he helps with everything he can around here. And he charters fishes. He manages the outside chickee. Karen is Mitch’s wife. She helps some. Mitch’s boy Aaron doesn’t work here much anymore. He’s got other fish to fry.”

“We work closely together as a team,” Debbie Cooper added. “It takes a team effort; everyone has to chip in.” 

“It’s been great because my whole family is involved,” said Annie Cooper. “And otherwise they definitely would have been scattered everywhere. So, we’ve been lucky there. The whole family is right here on the island (Isle of Capri). That’s something.”

“We’re all just a phone call away,” said Steve Cooper. “It was always nice growing up with family everywhere. I really liked that.”

“A great place to grow up,’ Mike Cooper agreed, “and not a bad place to grow old.”

4 responses to “Pelican Bend is Still the Same & That’s a Good Thing”

  1. Terry Gunner says:

    We just love Pelican Bend and sure enjoyed reading all it’s history. We have come 4000 miles every year to Marco Island and always manage to fit in at least two visits to Pelican Bend whilst we are in the area.
    Pelican bend is a credit to all your family and we thank you for sharing it with us each year.
    Valerie & Terry Gunner.

  2. Carole Rakoncay says:

    Love this place! Just ate there with my family!

  3. Tony John Piehowicz says:

    We love Pelican Bend and eat there once a week during our 2 months in the winter. Now with Covid we don’t eat indoors. We hope Mike and Debbie add outdoor dining for dinner this winter, PLEASE !!

  4. Jack Donovan says:

    My wife and I have been coming to Pelican Bend for 30 years. I love the location, food and people there.
    During the Pandemic they’ve been a shining beacon by staying open. We go there weekly as the outside dining is wonderful.

    It truly is a neighborhood restaurant with a Caribbean island atmosphere.

    It’s a must whether you live here full time as we do or you’re visiting.

    Five stars

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