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Tampa Bay waterfront restaurants take a hit from Red Tide

With no end in sight, restaurant owners fear the worst is yet to come.
Red Tide fish kills have been heavy near the St. Pete Pier, where restaurants like Doc Ford's are faced with customers increasingly weary about waterfront dining.
Red Tide fish kills have been heavy near the St. Pete Pier, where restaurants like Doc Ford's are faced with customers increasingly weary about waterfront dining. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 16
Updated Jul. 16

INDIAN SHORES — Frank Chivas is counting himself lucky — at least, for now.

His restaurants, several of which are seafood-focused and water-adjacent, have so far been spared the worst effects of the recent Red Tide — toxic algal blooms that have plagued huge swaths of Tampa Bay and Pinellas County beaches.

“It hasn’t affected us one bit,” Chivas said. “We’ve been very, very lucky. But, I’m going to go knock on wood right now.”

Chivas knows how Red Tide can affect a business. His restaurants didn’t fare as well during the 2017-2019 Red Tide bloom, which affected Florida’s major coasts, killing lots of fish and knee-capping some lucrative tourism industries.

Right now, the waters near his iconic seafood restaurant Salt Rock Grill, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway in Indian Shores, are clear.

But it’s unclear when the algal blooms and corresponding massive fish kills might subside, and Chivas — like many other local restaurateurs with waterfront property — are feeling apprehensive about what’s to come.

“You think about it every day when you wake up,” Chivas said. “Every time the tide comes in we have to watch what’s going on there.”

Diners enjoy a view of the Intracoastal Waterway from the dining room at Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores in December 2019. Owner Frank Chivas said Red Tide hasn't affected the waters near his  restaurant yet, but other businesses with waterfront property haven't been as lucky.
Diners enjoy a view of the Intracoastal Waterway from the dining room at Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores in December 2019. Owner Frank Chivas said Red Tide hasn't affected the waters near his restaurant yet, but other businesses with waterfront property haven't been as lucky. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Still, Chivas said his business is bringing in about 10 percent less than usual, a common refrain from his colleagues in the industry dealing with the combined hit of a recent loss in tourism and the perception — and often, reality — of unfavorable dining conditions.

For restaurants further south, near St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille, there’s been a considerable hit to local business. There, it can be hard to lure customers in, depending on the day and the current conditions.

Many would-be diners are concerned about the hazardous health effects caused by Red Tide, which include respiratory issues like eye, nose and throat irritation. Then, there’s the smell: The stench from the fish kills wafting in from the shore is a hard deterrent for those looking to enjoy some al fresco time.

In the days after Tropical Storm Elsa, some residents and tourists near St. Pete Beach experienced symptoms of respiratory distress and “a lot of coughing,” said Sarah Pfister, a bartender and manager at Woody’s Waterfront. But within days, Pfister said, the air cleared again. Even so, business has slowed.

“Right now, it looks great over here,” Pfister said. “We get a lot of people asking how it is — that’s pretty much the hot topic right now.”

Over at the Wharf in Pass-a-Grille, another restaurant that sits directly on the water, one employee said business had dropped considerably over the past few weeks, and that there were days when the water changed color and dead fish would show up near the dock outside.

But the areas near downtown St. Petersburg’s waterfront, along Vinoy Park and Coffee Pot Bayou, have arguably experienced the worst. That’s where cleanup crews have been working tirelessly to remove the swells of dead fish and marine debris, prompting Mayor Rick Kriseman to call on state officials for additional help and resources.

For restaurants at the St. Pete Pier like Teak and Doc Ford’s, educating diners — many of whom are visiting tourists with no previous Red Tide experience — is key.

“For a lot of our customers, it’s a teaching moment, explaining what’s going on,” said Cody Moore, a manger at Doc Ford’s. “It’s a shame what they have to see off the pier there — all the dead fish. It’s definitely not something that they wanted to see when they came on vacation.”

Moore said the incoming dead fish swells are impossible to predict, leading to more uncertainty for the business. One day the stench might be unbearable, he said, and the next it could be completely fine.

“The city has been doing all they can to get it clean but there’s so much of it,” Moore said. “It’s right back in a couple of hours.”

Financially, most restaurant owners said it was too early to tell how damaging the Red Tide has been to their bottom lines, and with no end in sight, many said they were unsure about the months to come.

“It’s still so early,” Moore said. “If this were to persist for a lot longer? It’s hard to tell. It’s definitely put us down a bit, there’s no doubt in my mind.”