The popular Captain Curt’s compound is a salute to the Stewart family’s commitment to the Key and to each other
By Hannah Wallace
“We’re not professional restaurateurs,” said Brad Stewart, who’s operated the famed Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar with his brother Brett since 1994. “We’re just a family who’s got a good thing going, and we’re trying to keep improving on it.”
Despite their aversion to the “professional restaurateur” title, Brett and Brad have not only kept the Old Stickney Point Road restaurant’s iconic status going over their 29-year tenure; they’ve overseen tremendous growth in the Captain Curt’s physical footprint, its staff, and its brand reach — all while touting “quality food, family and friends.”
“We don’t want to be twice as big,” said Brett. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the dining experience.”
The Stewart brothers grew up in Vicksburg, outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where their father, Dave, had a plastic-injection-molding company. After graduating high school, the brothers moved together to the family’s vacation home in Sarasota.
Meanwhile, Captain Curt’s had originally been opened in 1979 on south Midnight Pass Road (Turtle Beach Grill occupies that spot now). A new owner moved the restaurant up near the south bridge in 1982, to a building that had previously been a Davidson Drugs.
When the brothers took over in 1994, Captain Curt’s was only a fraction of the space it takes up now.
“It was a nice little restaurant,” said Brett. “[The previous owner] didn’t really change a lot or do a lot of upgrades. We just kind of ran it the way he did for the first year or two. But it wasn’t doing that well. Brad and I were like, ‘We gotta do better.’”
They started making changes to the menu and ran specials in the summer. They bought advertising. Brett hired a plane to fly a banner over the beach.
But the real turnaround, they agree, came when they built a bar area in a previously closed off space behind the original dining room, what Brett called the “Back Room Saloon.” There they hosted live entertainment and karaoke; Sundays were Elvis nights, Mondays were for the Beatles.
But Brett and Brad were still just tenants on the property. One day a “For Sale” sign appeared out front, sparking concern in their customers — and in the brothers themselves, who worried what another landlord would do to their rent.
“We’d painted ourselves into a corner,” said Brett. “That’s when Mom and Dad came down and took a look at everything.”
In fact, the Stewart parents arrived unannounced and proceeded to make the purchase themselves, without asking or even notifying their sons beforehand.
“They’d just showed up. We didn’t know they were coming. Brad and I were on our way to go fishing,” said Brett. “Mom and Dad were like, ‘We just want to let you know that we bought the property.’”
With their parents as landlords, the Stewarts spent the next 15 years paying off the mortgage while taking full advantage of new space. They grew their souvenir shop. A makeshift tiki bar they’d set up to shelter people waiting for tables grew into a permanent outdoor space that became iconic in its own right. The expansion continued into the next-door space, previously the Dragon Chinese restaurant.
At the same time, the Stewart brothers stayed committed to buying high-quality ingredients and prioritized the importance of a talented, well-run kitchen producing excellent food. In 2007, they brought Captain Curt’s famed clam chowder to the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Rhode Island — and won.
Captain Curt’s now had national bragging rights to go with its passionate local following. Brad spearheaded the effort to create a clam chowder take-home kit that could accurately reproduce their recipe’s now-famous “two-and-a-half times more clams than potatoes” ratio. (The key, he said, is a two-part process he likens to boxed macaroni-and-cheese dinners.) The chowder kits still fly off the shelves at the Captain Curt’s gift shop and are even stocked at some grocery stores in Ohio.
“It makes a great souvenir,” said Brad. “You don’t have to size [a chowder kit]. You bring home a T-shirt and it doesn’t fit. Instead, you just say to folks, ‘You have got to try this.’”
From top to bottom, from Sarasota to Newport to Kalamazoo, Captain Curt’s was a hit.
“It was almost kind of easy for us,” said Brett of their overall success. “The concept was, we just [created] what did we would have wanted to do when we came down to Florida on vacation.”
When they first took over the restaurant in 1994, they had 12 employees. Now they have 130.
But in 2020, COVID-19 forced temporary restaurant closures and a massive staff layoff — what Brad and Brett call “the worst time of our life.” Still, they took advantage of the downtime to upgrade their outdoor space, expanding the seating area to add even more outdoor tables and building a first-class performance stage.
When restaurants were allowed to reopen with strict indoor restrictions, Captain Curt’s was uniquely suited to accommodate outdoor diners at safe distances from one another. Even when restrictions were lifted, the brothers refused to pack more tables into their outdoor seating, instead keeping diners comfortably spaced for the best possible dining experience.
They started hosting live music seven days a week, shows that have become a favorite of guests and performers alike.
Still guided by the kinds of places they’d like to visit on vacation, the Stewarts added “coffee shop” to their beer garden service. “Now I tell the coffee folks, ‘You guys are the last to go, because nobody’s going to mess with my cup of coffee in the morning,’” said Brett.
The Captain Curt’s “nice little restaurant” from 1994 is now officially Captain Curt’s Village.
‘Family and friends’
“We’ve been changing and adapting from the get-go,” said Brad, and Brett added, “If there’s one thing that we do, we change and adapt.”
But after all the changing and adapting, the brothers attribute their longevity to one of the few constants in their restaurant career: the people they work with — including each other and the rest of the family.
“The real story is that we’re family and we’re still doing this,” said Brett. “When we were younger, maybe we struggled a little bit. But we realized pretty quickly that that’s not the way to go. We work together. If you don’t worry about who gets the credit on things, it’s amazing what you can get done.”
Now their nephew Brian (“the son of our other, military brother”) handles their computer and kitchen automation services. Some of their other employees have been here almost as long as the Stewarts themselves.
“Brad and I still have lunch together five days a week with our mom,” said Brett. “Our dad, Dave, is like the mascot. Everybody loves Dave.”
In trying to create the kind of spot they’d like to visit on vacation, the Stewarts seem to have made for themselves a permanent home.
“We wouldn’t keep doing this if we weren’t having fun,” they agreed.