The Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub is housed in a former bait shop built in 1913. Ed Chiles bought this restaurant, on Longboat Key, in 1988. / Photos courtesy of Chiles Restaurant Group
When Ed Chiles started in the restaurant business, he was a recent college grad with a political science degree seeking a way to earn a living. “I thought I was just trying to get some beer money and pay my bills,” he says.
Nearly 40 years later, the younger son of Lawton Chiles, the late Florida governor and former U.S. senator, not only has three successful restaurants; he has built somewhat of an empire that has nothing to do with politics but much to do with science. Agriculture and aquaculture, sustainable and organic, wild and cultivated; field to fork, Gulf to grill, pasture to plate.
It all started in the kitchen of the Sandbar Restaurant in Anna Maria, a tiny town on the island of that name at the mouth of Tampa Bay. There, Ed began working after spending a year at another restaurant, starting as a dishwasher. His family, who lived in Lakeland at the time, had a beach house in Anna Maria. His dad, then around the midpoint of his 18-year stint in the Senate, joined with his Washington tennis partner and longtime political ally in July 1979 to buy the restaurant.
Ed stepped in to learn the ropes under a manager who ended up leaving six months later. He was put in charge, and hasn’t looked back since, embracing both a restaurant career (by buying two other Gulf-front eateries during the next 14 years) and the locavore movement that, especially lately, has taken the industry by storm.
The 105-year history of The Sandbar
The Sandbar, whose popularity rests on a history dating to 1911 – back in the days when Anna Maria could be reached only by boat – is the flagship of the Chiles Restaurant Group. The Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub on Longboat Key, a few miles south and housed in a former bait shop built in 1913, was Chiles’ next acquisition, in 1988.
Finally, in 1993, he bought the old Harbor House in Bradenton Beach and turned it into the Beach House Restaurant, sited on 650 feet of Gulf of Mexico beachfront. Renovations gave it a huge covered deck running along the powder-white sand, beach volleyball courts, and a playground.
Menus at all three restaurants are dominated by Gulf of Mexico seafood, of course. But they also boast dishes made with all manner of Florida-grown and -raised foodstuffs, largely through Chiles’ various partnerships and other investments in local food producers. For decades, he has been putting his money where his patrons’ food desires are: locally grown and sustainably raised seafoods, meats, and produce.
“That is the most important movement in my 37 years in business: locavores, people wanting to know where their food is coming from and, ideally, who grows it,” he notes.
Chiles has a long-term lease on Gamble Creek Farm, near Parrish in Manatee County. The 26-acre plot grows hydroponic and organic vegetables, plus some row crops, and produces so much that it helps to keep his restaurants supplied, plus he’s able to sell excess produce at a local green market.
He’s also part owner of another operation, in Ruskin, that has the distinction of being the first USDA Certified Organic hydroponic farm in the nation. “Three Boys Farm won a ‘gold medal’ … years ago. My partner is kind of a rocket scientist – Robert Tornello – who does that,” says Chiles.
In 2010, Three Boys Farm won the Florida commissioner of agriculture and consumer service’s Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award.
Chiles has still bigger plans, however. A team led by his seafood company, partnered with Mote Marine Research Institute and Healthy Earth – a deep-pocketed venture-capital firm – recently won the half-million-dollar X Prize offered by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in a “blue economy” challenge that drew some 50 entrants.
Their plan is to offer products made in Florida, he says, “by artisanally value-adding curing, pickling, smoking, drying, and fresh-packing. That’s our goal on sustainable heritage seafood, because we have a lot of it.”
Beach House Waterfront Restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach; 941-779-2222; beachhouse.groupersandwich.com.
Sandbar Restaurant, 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria; 941-778-0444; sandbar.groupersandwich.com.
Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub, 760 Broadway St., Longboat Key; 941-383-2391; marvista.groupersandwich.com.
Chris Felker writes and edits for various South Florida media, including Okeechobee The Magazine and The Town-Crier in Wellington. He has lived in Palm Beach County for over 30 years. Prior to becoming a freelancer, he served as an editor for The Palm Beach Post for 22 years.