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12A Buoy explores opening in historic Patio

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ (Week of October 30, 2014)

The owners of Vero’s historic Patio restaurant, fishing for a tenant since last fall, appear to have hooked a big one:  Fort Pierce’s 12A Buoy.

Katie James, who with her husband Owen Hartley owns 12A Buoy, the typically jam-packed restaurant near the port of Fort Pierce, says they are “seriously considering” taking on the much larger Patio, and they intend to keep 12A going, too – at least for the time being.

“We’ve looked at it a couple of times and we’ve talked about the lease,” says James. 

She confirms that the Patio owners, descendants of Vero legend Waldo Sexton who built the downtown restaurant 70 years ago along with the Ocean Grill and the Driftwood, are plenty excited at the prospect. “They’ve made it very clear,” she says with a laugh, while acknowledging that the deal has not been sealed.

In terms of style, the Patio and 12A Buoy could be cousins. Since it opened in 2008, the comfort-food style seafood and chummy ambience of 12A Buoy has lured Vero regulars south for great fresh fish, fried oysters, shrimp and grits and clam chowder, served informally and efficiently at very affordable prices.

It is precisely the vibe the Patio has sought to create in its many incarnations, most recently, as the homier mainland version of the island’s Tides restaurant. Tides chef-owner Leanne Kelleher gave it her best shot for a year before shutting down, blaming high overhead and competition at the same price point with chain restaurants as well the volume needed to pay the bills for such a large space.

As Kelleher pointed out, the Patio is the largest restaurant in Vero; with 250 seats in five dining rooms and another 50 in the bar area, it dwarfs the tiny 12A, where guests trying to give their name to the hostess find themselves in a crush of conviviality from the nearby bar.

The kitchen of the 12A is even more cramped, the owners say, though the close quarters don’t appear to dampen the staff’s enthusiasm. When last fall a fire destroyed the kitchen in the middle of the night, some assumed the owners would expand or reopen elsewhere. Instead they put things right back the way they were.

Two months later, the hole-in-the-wall hotspot reopened with a fresh coat of paint, but not a square inch more of space. Even the staff returned, almost to the one.

It is just the sort of place the Sexton family would call home.  Kelleher’s Patio drew throngs initially, but crowds thinned dramatically within months, and summer’s smaller pool of patrons proved fatal.

Before Kelleher, four other efforts failed in five years.

Kelleher said the late Ralph Sexton took the news especially hard. At 86, he still went to lunch every Tuesday. Sexton died in September. His nephew, Mark Tripson, Waldo’s grandson, is handling the lease agreement.