It may be off-season for tourists in the tropical paradise of Islamorada, Florida, but the team behind Rich’s three restaurants and catering service are not in vacation mode. With new GM, Jeff Evans, established in his leadership role, menus are being refreshed, service hours are expanding, new entertainment events are being added to the calendar, and everyone is working diligently to prime and perfect their operation in anticipation of peak season.
“I’m lucky enough to steward this team right now,” noted Evans. “It feels like I’m temporarily holding a diamond in my hand and I’m trying to take very good care of it. This establishment was here long before I arrived and it will be here long after I leave, so I see my role as simply trying to make improvements, to polish the diamond as best as I can while I’m here.”
Evans brings a new perspective and years of experience in the foodservice and corporate environment to The Green Turtle Inn, Kaiyo Grill & Sushi, The Nest BBQ & Sports Bar, and Green Turtle Catering, REG’s four operations in Islamorada.
“I believe that no matter how established and successful your operation is, it’s always beneficial to have a fresh set of eyes,” remarked Evans. He also noted that in all his years in foodservice, Evans has yet to meet a staff as conscientious as the REG team in Florida.
One of Evans’ first initiatives after starting in June 2023 was to poll the local community to identify any opportunities for improvement. At The Nest, a sports bar and roadside barbeque stop, it was clear that expanded, consistent hours would drive more traffic through the door. Serving mouth-watering barbeque that’s been smoked for more than 14 hours, The Nest team offers outstanding fare at a reasonable price. In response to customer feedback, The Nest recently relaunched with regular hours, a enhanced menu and discounts for locals. Evans also introduced Trivia Nights on Tuesdays and a monthly live comedy show to give customers an exciting entertainment line-up.
In addition, The Nest will be the first stop on the 2024 Yappy Hour tour, a monthly opportunity for locals and their canine friends to share “dogtales and cocktails” in support of the MarrVelous Pet Rescues.
Next door to The Nest lies an iconic landmark along the Overseas Highway, The Green Turtle Inn. “The Green Turtle is our mid-range option providing arguably the best breakfast in the Keys,” said Evans. “It’s a casual environment with a fantastic, consistent menu that customers have come to love and expect, three meals a day.”
Just up the street is Kaiyo Grill & Sushi, what Evans describes as “the diamond of the Keys”. Here guests enjoy a dining experience than transcends the ordinary with wonderful, fresh grilled steaks and seafood, as well as a spectacular sushi component. A new head chef recently came on board at Kaiyo and introduced a heightened menu of “fusion at its finest” in September.
“Kaiyo is our high-end establishment, and the food will absolutely blow your taste buds away,” boasted Evans. “It’s an extraordinary and exciting culinary experience!”
The catering arm of the Florida operation, which is being rebranded as Green Turtle Catering, spans all three restaurants and offers everything from casual dinner parties to elaborate weddings for events large and small. The catering team also operates the Tipsy Turtle, a fully licensed mobile bar that can go anywhere the party goes, including a liquor license that travels with the bar so clients don’t have to secure their own.
Evans is excited about the future of REG’s operations in the Keys, a place he has been visiting for many years and always dreamed of calling home. He said he’s living his best life right now and savoring a new career that brings him back to an industry that has always brought him great joy.
“All through college and most of my professional career, I held positions in restaurants and bars, from server and bartender right up to manager,” recalled Jeff. “It was a way to supplement my income, but even more so, it was just something I loved to do. I love the hospitality industry. I love meeting new people and hearing about their stories.”
In addition to a passion for hospitality and delivering fun experiences to people, Evans brings strong business acumen to continue to grow and polish the operations. Evans said his entrepreneurial instincts shone as early as fourth grade when he began selling cartons of golf balls he recovered from ponds at a local golf course. In grade eight, Evans ran a small candy business out of his middle school locker, a lucrative endeavor until school administration shut down his operation.
Jeff went on to study IT in college before starting a computer business with a few classmates. After selling the business he worked for various fortune 500 companies in the paper product industry before landing in New York and marketing financial services.
REG is pleased to welcome Evans back to the restaurant industry and Islamorada. To learn more about the Florida Restaurant Group and its new General Manager, read on for more from our recent interview with Jeff Evans.
What is your favorite thing about living in the Keys?
The backdrop here is spectacular. It’s probably the prettiest tropical landscape I’ve ever seen, with water to be found in every direction along the 120-mile stretch of pure paradise. But the people here are simply amazing. They are kind, humble, generous, warm, welcoming and a host of other wonderful characteristics. Everybody has a smile on their face. There’s a unique vibe or mentality in the Keys, one that I think stems from the fact that we all know we’re blessed to live here. This is a special, special place.
What the Florida Restaurant Group’s competitive advantage?
With three distinct operations at varying price points, we deliver high quality foodservice that’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re on a budget or having a special celebration.
Tell us about the “cook what you catch” special at Green Turtle and Kaiyo.
The Florida Keys are one of the best fishing destinations in the world and we provide a service to anyone who wants to bring their fresh catch into either restaurant to enjoy an amazing meal courtesy of their own efforts of the water. For $25, guests can choose from a selection of sauces to accompany their fish, as well as a starch (rice or potatoes) and a vegetable, and our chefs will prepare their personal catch-of-the-day to perfection. It doesn’t get any more “farm-to-table” than that!
Is the Green Turtle’s iconic turtle chowder made from real turtles?
Yes, however, we don’t use sea turtles or any other endangered species in our recipes. We exclusively source farm raised Louisiana snapping turtles for our delicious chowder. Furthermore, we’ve made it a priority to support local wildlife protection and preservation efforts and we look forward to sharing news of an upcoming partnership very soon. We pride ourselves on being good stewards of the environment and this community. It’s important that we do everything we can to conserve natural resources and protect the beautiful habitat that we are so privileged to live and work within here in Islamorada.
What’s your go-to comfort food?
I’m in love with pizza. My favorite right now is made right here in Islamorada and it’s a BLT pizza, but instead of red sauce they use olive oil, and then they drizzle the whole pizza with mayonnaise. It’s absolutely delicious.
Where will we find you when you’re not at one of REG’s Florida restaurants?
My husband and I love going off and enjoying something unique to the Keys, whether it’s getting on a kayak and paddling through the mangroves or watching a sunset at one of the bayside establishments. We are still discovering all that our community has to offer and learning about our amazing new neighbors here in Islamorada.
If we only have time for one meal during a quick trip to Islamorada, where should we eat?
You must go to Kaiyo and experience a delicious two-hour dining adventure. You’ll be treated to some wonderful sake pairings and spectacular starters before enjoying a delectable main course prepared fresh from the grill by our executive chef in his signature style of the day. And for a delightful finish, I highly recommend the carrot cake–it’s my award-winning recipe and now available at all three of our restaurants. Little known fact, I spent eight years perfecting this recipe while I was baking and selling cakes out of my home in Connecticut. My personal recipe took home the red ribbon at the Agricultural Fair and guests here in the Keys say it’s the best carrot cake they’ve ever had!