HOLMES BEACH — Kathy Smart moves through the dining room in her Converse high-top sneakers and white sailor cap, all 5 feet of her, topping off coffee here, making a joke there.
She knows her regulars by what they eat: Golfing Gordy and his 7 a.m. egg sandwich, Carol and her Sloppy Joe, Chief from Michigan who’s partial to The Big Mess of hash browns smothered in pretty much everything.
Minnie’s Beach Cafe is a sunny-side-up kind of place with a big round community table for eight where strangers sit — rich yachty types elbow-to-elbow with tourists, day-trippers chatting up fishermen, widows and widowers. (Two people who met there got married, the story goes.) Up by the register stands a cake dome filled with gooey treats. For every holiday, Smart wears a themed costume. St. Patrick’s Day is big.
“That’s what we like about it. We try to keep it a happy place,” says Smart, 63. “When it stops being fun for us, we’re done.”
Then came COVID-19.
At the start of the pandemic, Minnie’s posted a sign on the door: Breakfast and lunch take-out was free for kids who needed it, particularly with school out.
“Even if you are just having a hard time finding kids’ food!” the sign read. They served about 200 of those kids’ meals.
But as the crisis wore on, the little restaurant tucked into a strip center blocks from the Gulf of Mexico was in trouble. People weren’t coming in or ordering out like before. Employees were working for just tips that they split. Minnie’s was perilously close to closing.
Back when Smart landed in Florida from Cape Cod and could find only minimum wage jobs, she went back to waitressing. The owner of that restaurant, the precursor to Minnie’s, decided to sell in 2004. So Smart and her longtime partner, chef Mary Doub, and a former waitress pooled their money and bought the place.
There is no Minnie. They wanted something that sounded warm and tried out their grandmothers’ names. Gladys’s didn’t work, but Minnie’s did.
As business dwindled this summer, Smart took to Facebook, where they post the daily specials.
“In our wildest dreams/nightmares we never thought it would come to this,” she wrote. The payroll protection money from the government was long gone. To survive, they needed customers.
They would deliver curbside. Tables were spaced, with more outside. They would take a check, even though Minnie’s is famously cash-only.
“We will even dance for you!” she wrote. “(No pole dancing, though.)”
Retiree Gale Tedhams and her husband like to walk to Minnie’s. Biscuits and gravy for her, veggie omelet for him. The Facebook post was upsetting. How could Minnie’s not make it?
“I didn’t think I could eat enough biscuits and gravy to do much, so we gave her a donation,” Tedhams said. She declined to say how much, but on the check’s memo line she wrote: “I want to retain the best biscuits and gravy in town.”
Customers started coming. A couple bought a $500 gift certificate. The local plumbing company ordered 30 sandwiches. On a $5.95 check, a man left two $100 bills.
“The girls, they’d get a $20 tip on $20 check,” Smart said.
And more people donated.
“I was like, ’Wait, wait, I don’t want you to send me checks, I just want you to come in,’” Smart said. They did it anyway. Money came from locals and faraway people who vacation on the island. A mysterious hundred dollars a week came from a P.O. box in Anna Maria City, the town to the north, with no name attached. On Facebook, Smart thanked the Anna Maria P.O. box.
A woman wrote them that a restaurant once let her eat for free when she was on vacation and her money was stolen. She never paid the restaurant back and still felt bad about it. She wrote a $300 check to Minnie’s. Breakfast karma.
Vicki Kile, a former school guidance counselor, moved to Holmes Beach several years ago after she’d lost a daughter, then her husband. She would sit by herself at the Minnie’s counter. Swiss, tomato and cheese omelette, rye toast.
The women at Minnie’s got her talking. They made her laugh. She came to think of them as warriors whose positive vibes were catching. She donated an undisclosed amount.
“I was like, ’They have to stay here. They’re part of my family,’” she said.
As business built through August, Smart cried so often she had to quit wearing mascara. She couldn’t stop saying thank you. On Facebook she had to emphasize that they were closing for two weeks in September for their regular vacation and restaurant cleaning, not for good.
“When I posted my tale of woe, I hoped that it would bring us a few more customers in. I never expected the island to rally together around us,” she wrote, “...oh dear, here come the tears.”
For now, Minnie’s would be okay.
“With all the political stuff going on, so much hate spread around, somebody’s in need, they’re there to help,” said Smart. “These people have restored my faith.”