What is it that keeps a bartender being a bartender?
“I like meeting interesting people,” Sandra Gunther says. “I have no problem talking to anyone and everyone.”
The blue-eyed, blonde, upbeat Sandra is a bartender at Conch Republic Seafood Company, a dockside restaurant and bar with the atmosphere of a carefree getaway even for those who live here. The open-aired dining room and the long stretch of bar — possibly the biggest on the island — is separated by the genius partition of a real fish tank and benefits from the constant sweep of cool ocean breeze providing Mother Nature’s air conditioning. This is the kind of bar where you can sit back, relax and get comfortable while leaving all your worries behind. Rustic and undeniably picturesque, it’s also one of the only local places where you can have an ice-cold drink while sitting right next to the water. No wonder it’s always so hard to get a seat. The locals, in fact, have endearingly nicknamed it Conch Farm because it’s such a staple in the community.
But for Sandra, it’s not just a great place to be a bartender, it’s also a part of who she is.
Sandra arrived in Key West as a 1-year-old but left some seven years later, only to return every now and then thanks to a military upbringing. As soon as she was able to she made her way back for good to “the place that always felt like home.” That was one year shy of a decade ago.
“It’s beautiful here,” she says, “plus I love the characters.”
She started working at the Conch Farm at the age of 18, learning the business from the ground up by bussing tables and hostessing like everyone else does when they first start in the service industry. When she was finally old enough to serve alcohol, she was promoted to waitress and then eventually found herself as a bartender “learning as I went.”
Although she has worked at popular establishments such as Fat Tuesdays, Tattoos & Scars Saloon and the late Lazy Gecko, this has always been her priority — and for good reason: Not only is the Conch Farm her employer, but it is also family. He dad is part owner of the joint and has been for 21 years. He was also the visionary behind the creation of the Lazy Gecko. Her grandmother once owned a bar called the Silver Saddle in Portsmouth, Va., where she was known as a pretty formidable pool opponent.
“We are family-owned and we want people to come and enjoy a great meal with an amazing view,” Sandra says about the Conch Farm.
A typical meal here might include tempura fried cracked conch with orange horseradish marmalade or baked oysters callaloo with parmesan cheese and drizzled garlic aioli as a snack or a starter. For the main course you could choose from the local snapper filet topped with homemade chimichurri and marinated cherry tomatoes or the St. Louis-style pork ribs smothered in Jack Daniel’s BBQ sauce. Then you could finish it all off with a slice of Key lime pie. Of course, you can’t leave without a strawberry or key lime mojito which Sandra personally recommends, but no matter what you order your meal will not be a complete experience unless you order the royal reds.
Royal reds are one of the best kept secrets in town. Deep water shrimp typically found in and around the Gulf Coast, they’re a borderline delicacy highly prized for their sweet, almost lobster-like flavor. To order them at the Conch Farm you have to ask for them by name because they are not listed on the menu. It’s another recommendation Sandra makes and I would recommend taking her word for it.
“We strictly advertise them by word of mouth,” Sandra explains.
She tells me she always has a smile on her face and that people are just happy to be at the Conch Farm. It’s this type of attitude, however, that’s the real reason you should go see what it’s all about.
The royal reds, the refreshing mojitos and the prime location are just an added bonus. It’s the people like Sandra and her dad who add the authenticity that makes you want to come back.
She’s lucky enough that some of those people are with her at the Conch Farm every day.
I would say that this quite possibly is what inspires Sandra to bartend. It’s a part of her bloodline to the Florida Keys.
Conch Republic Seafood Company is open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., with happy hour every day from 4-7 p.m.
Look for Sandra shaking things up during dinner time Thursdays through Mondays. ¦