FORT LAUDERDALE — It’s mid-afternoon when the delivery boy for Jay’s Sandbar Floating BBQ motors up to the charter boat filled with hungry 20-somethings on the Fort Lauderdale sandbar.
Chip Keown leans over the charter’s stern in anticipation, his stomach grumbling from a morning marathon of nautical partying. The 14-year-old food runner cuts his dinghy’s motor, stands up and hands Keown his greasy prize: jalapeno-stuffed, bacon-wrapped alligator bites.
Holding the Styrofoam box, the salty aroma dizzying in the mid-October swelter, Keown, 24, loses all willpower. “It’s salty-sweet-delicious,” the Boca Raton man says, dipping the deep-fried nuggets into chipotle aioli. “There’s nothing better than drinking and having food delivered to you by a boat 50 feet away.”
When Fort Lauderdale boaters need a fast bite on the Intracoastal, those in-the-know queue up for calamari, clam nachos and Hong Kong-style pork at Jay’s Sandbar Floating BBQ, the city’s only floating restaurant, anchored at the Fort Lauderdale sandbar every weekend.
The shallow boating playground, north of the 17th Street Causeway, is a weekend hotspot where hundreds of hard-partying, bikinied revelers indulge against a backdrop of Las Olas mansions. Three years ago Jay Lycke realized the sandbar lacked a crucial ingredient — food ― so he converted his pontoon boat into a mobile kitchen.
Now, seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Jay’s Sandbar Floating BBQ is so popular Lycke fills 150 orders a day – all while idling at the sandbar.
“It’s like I pulled over on the side of I-595 and I-95 and opened a gourmet food stand. Imagine how much food you’d sell,” says Lycke, 50. “I cook right in front of them. I’ll even filet their catch and sear it on high heat until the steam explodes like Benihana. Why dock at a restaurant when you can stay here, drinking beers from your cooler?”
From the sandbar, Lycke’s self-described “food boat” – 32 feet, including the wraparound wood deck – is an odd engineering marvel, a buoyant shack of reclaimed wood and metal covered in menu boards and banners advertising nautical gear. He says he assembled it over three months at a boatyard on State Road 84 with his life savings: about $75,000. It is registered with the state as a mobile food service vehicle, the same license for food trucks, and did pass its most recent inspections.
When the sandbar’s lunch rush hits at 2 p.m. Saturday, Lycke is a firecracker of energy, ping-ponging from aft to stern, reaching into chest freezers for clams, shoving pork shoulder into a smoker, and dropping gator meat into an eight-gallon fryer. “Sugar britches, I need more alligator bites,” he calls to Coulette Murray, his girlfriend and assistant, who reaches into a cooler filled with pre-breaded gator meat.
Alligator sizzles in the fryer as Anthony, Lycke’s son, docks his delivery dinghy and climbs aboard. The phone rings. A sandbar customer four boats over, the “It’s 5 O' Clock Somewhere,” wants pork shoulder. Murray quickly hands Anthony a Styrofoam box containing “the Vegan” – pita bread topped with hummus, fresh tomatoes and basil, a vinaigrette and tzatziki sauce – and sends him off again.
Most weekends Anthony, who says he earned his boating license at age 12, circles the sandbar, scanning for sunbathers who make eye contact. Some vessels are no-brainers. Some he doesn’t bother. Giant yacht party filled with dancing, bikinied revelers? Too much commotion, probably too drunk. “If they’re on a charter boat this is probably their third stop and they’re hungry,” he says. When it’s busier his friend Daniel drives another dinghy.
Navene Shata, 29 and vegan, is paddling over in her white unicorn float as Anthony kills the outboard motor.
Cracking open the container, the Fort Lauderdale woman says, “It’s like COVID doesn’t exist out here. It’s freeing.” She bites into pita and tastes tzatziki. “OK, this isn’t vegan, but still, A for effort.”
Back on Jay’s boat, there’s a lull. Lycke drops fresh minced garlic on the flattop, which blackens quickly, its smoke perfuming the food boat and the sandbar around it. “We stink the place up,” Lycke says. “It’s like chumming the waters but for humans.”
Food boats are rarities in South Florida, although Jay’s Sandbar Floating BBQ has the monopoly on the Fort Lauderdale sandbar. To find it, follow the Intracoastal’s shallow water warnings north of the 17th Street Causeway until it bisects the New River. Lycke says he avoids the sandbars at Haulover Beach Park in northern Miami and Peanut Island in West Palm Beach, home to rival food vessels.
When Lycke isn’t stuffing jalapenos into gator meat, he builds swimming pools and lives with Anthony aboard a 50-foot yacht called “The Bond Girl,” docked on the Intracoastal. He says he took engineering classes in college but his nautical know-how is self-taught. Of his cooking experience, he says, “My mother was an Italian chef, my dad was a French chef and my brother’s a full-time chef and they taught me everything.”
If business is slow, Lycke drops his spatula and cannonballs into the sandbar to cool off. Or he fishes for snapper, tarpon and snook off the wooden deck, cooks what he catches and passes samples to visitors. It’s better marketing than a Facebook ad, he says. “This is our office and we do what we want.”
Drifting over to Jay’s boat in their pool floats, Debbie Reto and Lori Canterberry, of Cooper City, are ready to nosh. “Looks like we hooked some mermaids,” Lycke calls from the kitchen.
“There’s some younger mermaids out there but you caught us instead,” Reto says with a laugh.
Canterberry swirls a plastic, glitter-covered “Time to Party” wine cup, asks Lycke for a round of clam nachos and a refill. Moscow Mule, preferably. But Jay’s boat isn’t licensed to sell liquor. “If I could sell alcohol on this boat, this silver chain I’m wearing would be platinum,” Lycke tells them. “I’d make Flavor Flav look like a pauper.”
When Canterberry told her son that the sandbar had its own “floating restaurant,” they decided to charter a boat and invite friends. “It’s my cheat day,” she says, popping open her order – deep-fried calamari – and taking a bite.
With a salute from Lycke – “Thank you, my aquatic vixens!” – the women laugh and waive and drift away on their floats, satisfied with their crunchy sandbar feast.
--By PHILLIP VALYS, South Florida Sun Sentinel