BROOKSVILLE — For the past couple of days, visitors have been driving up to Farmer John's Key West Cafe only to leave with a look of dejection after reading the sign out front that delivers the sad news.
Farmer John's is closed.
At a time of year when owner John Carlone usually is winding down his restaurant for its annual summer hiatus, he informed his staff a couple of weeks ago that he was looking to retire and sell the popular breakfast/lunch bistro on E Jefferson Street that he launched in 2007. He offered hungry patrons Caribbean-influenced fare such as Key West crepes, panko shrimp, berry blintzes and conch chowder.
Blair Hensley, who owns and operates Brooksville's legendary Coney Island Drive Inn just down the street, said when he learned his friend Carlone was selling the place, it was an opportunity that was just too good to resist.
"John always had a great reputation with his customers," Hensley said. "It's a prime spot in town with lots of traffic that brings in good business. That's why I wanted it."
Because Carlone insisted on keeping the Farmer John's moniker, plans are for Hensley and his brother, Ethan, to relaunch the restaurant on April 16 as the Florida Cracker Kitchen. Aside from the decor and some other interior amenities, the eatery will keep much of its present character, including the servers and kitchen staff, and will maintain the same hours.
"You don't mess with success," said Ethan Hensley, 32, who will operate the new restaurant.
Like his older brother, Ethan Hensley grew up in the restaurant business, working his way up from kitchen maintenance to line cook. For the past few years, he has been chef in the kitchens of Mallie Kyla's Cafe in Brooksville and Dade City, both of which are owned by his mother, Larie Hensley.
The Florida Cracker Kitchen will be Ethan Hensley's first foray in running his own establishment.
"I'm pretty excited about trying some new things and seeing what I can come up with that customers will enjoy," said Hensley, who was trained at the New England Culinary Institute.
While he intends to keep the existing breakfast menu pretty much intact, Hensley said the lunch menu will center around items such as homemade seafood gumbo, pork barbecue, fried po' boy sandwiches, salads and other dishes emphasizing fresh seafood.
Hensley said he's even contemplating opening for dinner at some point.
"That's a thought for down the road," he said. "It's been quite a while since there was a sit-down dinner restaurant in this area."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.