Willy Kochounian is an accidental institution.
Three decades ago, the Chicago native bought a Pine Island beach house on a whim. It was another half-dozen years before he his wife, Candice, moved to Hernando County permanently. Up North, he had traveled the country for a finance company and then ran the family grocery store, but he didn't know what he would do after relocating to Florida.
Eventually he opened an amusement/vending business leasing pool tables and video games to bars and private clubs. Part of his off-duty routine was walking the three blocks to the beach and chewing the fat with the guy who ran the concession there.
In 1991, the vendor was out of the contract with the county and recommended Kochounian bid for the job. He said he wrote a letter to the county and a couple weeks later someone called and said the job was his.
"I got off the phone and looked at my wife and said, 'What the hell do we do now?' ''
They figured it out quite nicely and 18 years later Willy's Tropical Breeze Cafe is synonymous with Pine Island Beach. The menu runs from crab cakes and coconut shrimp to egg rolls and bratwurst. Of course, there are Chicago-style hot dogs. Have a smoothie or cappuccino to drink, suntan oil to spread or a T-shirt to wear as a souvenir.
What had been a trailer is now two standalone buildings amid an outdoor eating experience. Kochounian added decking and 15 picnic tables, stools and landscaping. The turquoise roof tops a spotless kitchen with ceramic tile on the floor, a grill and fryer in the corner and customers lined up at the window.
It is a picturesque setting that has brought local acclaim. A color photograph of Willy's Tropical Breeze Cafe is the July image on the 2009 calendar for Hernando-Pasco Hospice that features the unique places in three counties. Willy's has been used for photo shoots for national advertising for Wal-Mart, by Hooters waitresses and for an episode of the reality television show Supernanny. A couple of years ago, the chamber of commerce depicted Willy's as its annual Christmas ornament.
Kochounian is a cook, manager and park caretaker. He opens the park gates in the morning and closes up after sunset, more than three hours after the county's paid staff leaves for the day. Kochounian figures the caretaking service alone is worth up to $500 a month savings to the public. Kochounian does not own the land upon which his restaurant sits. It is the property of Hernando County and he pays $18,500 annually for a lease that has been renewed at five-year intervals. He pays his own insurance and utilities.
"Willy does a tremendous job out there,'' said parks director Pat Fagan. "The quality of the food, the service, the security he provides — just a quality job.''
Too good of a job, apparently. The problem confronting Kochounian is that others want a piece of the action. Last month, while Kochounian vacationed in California, another newspaper quoted a woman who bid unsuccessfully for the job back in 1991. She wanted a chance to bid for the business again.
"I planted a seed and it grew into something beautiful and now, she wants it,'' Kochounian lamented. "I'm not ready to give this up. Why should I?''
Good question. The reaction has been swift and nearly universal: You shouldn't. Kochounian started collecting signatures on a petition. He said he's up to almost 2,000 names. Customers have penned supportive letters to newspaper editors.
Hernando Commissioner Jim Adkins visited and offered his help. Five days ago, Commissioner Rose Rocco championed Willy's from the commission dais.
Indeed. Among the ongoing government discussions about budgets, watering bans, impact fees, gift cards, bailouts, foreclosures, job reductions and dredging came a discussion about Willy's.
Clearly, there are more vital issues at hand, but you couldn't blame the commission for trying to head off what would be a public relations nightmare: kicking out a guy who has invested his own time and money to build a successful, attractive and popular business on county property. Kind of hard to do that after more than a year of talking about how to improve the local economy.
"I look at it this way: This park is one less headache for the county because I'm here,'' Kochounian said. "There is no vandalism. The place is clean. If there were complaints or we ran a bad show or served terrible food, I could see it.
"But, really, what more do they want?''