The Bonita Springs Fire Department has made a deal to move closer to the water for what they say will decrease response time. The property they bought is where the beloved Big Hickory Waterfront Grille stood.
The purchase has raised questions about the future of the restaurant.
When Traci Kautzman, the former owner of Big Hickory Waterfront Grille, steps inside the doors, she doesn’t see dirt covering the floors, loose wires, or broken sinks.
“I look in here, and I see my kitchen staff just hustle bustle and loving what they’re doing and putting great dishes on tables,” said Kautzman. “I look in this dining room and see it at capacity. People can’t wait to get their mouths on a bite of shrimp or a grouper sandwich it just. It just breaks my heart that it’s over.”
Her life’s work was forever changed by Hurricane Ian. “We still cry every day about it.”
Kautzman had to sell her restaurant to the Bonita Springs Fire Department for $6 million. She said she had no choice because building back the restaurant to current hurricane standards would cost millions she did not have.
“It’s not that we don’t want to see the fire department buy it. It’s just we wanted to rebuild and just keep operating like this business had for 50 years,” Kautzman said.
“All we want to do is get back into rescue business,” said Bonita Springs Fire Chief Greg DeWitt.
That’s why Dewitt wanted this property. The strip mall and the boat ramp are what his department needs to increase response times.
He didn’t want to buy the restaurant but had to in order to close the deal. As for Kautzman, she hopes to open a new restaurant.
“Part of what people loved about this was being on the water and the casualness of it. And those places are hard to find anymore. You’re on the beach or on the water. So we’re going to keep looking. We’ve not ruled out rebuilding. But we don’t think we see a path to rebuilding Bonita Beach,” said Kautzman.
the fire chief says it will cost about $150,000 to rebuild the boat ramp and strip mall. He said it should only take a few months.