Fort Myers Brewing Back To Business As Usual After Irma

Sep 15, 2017

Hurricane Irma passed through Southwest Florida more than four days ago, yet the majority of the region is still without power — and growing tired of meals made up of canned tuna and PB&Js. But, there are a few food establishments that opened right after the storm, including one local stop that doesn't actually serve food on its own.

Pulling into Fort Myers Brewing Company Tuesday night, you would’ve thought it was Thursday — the night of its popular weekly food truck rally — based on the crowd. One thing was off, though. No one was playing corn hole in the parking lot.

In fact, the lot was underwater after Hurricane Irma blew through two days before. It had power, though, which was more than a lot of places had going for them after Irma.

People wait in line for food from the Doner Kebab King Karl food truck parked outside of Fort Myers Brewing Company.
Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU

Lisa Steffen’s Naples apartment faired much worse.

“I mean, I would be surprised if the power’s back by the 22nd, which is what FP&L is saying, because we had some Australian pines that took down all our power lines and smashed the dumpster and whatnot,” Steffen said.

She got a chance to check on her apartment the day after Irma cleared Collier County, but she actually weathered the storm in a friend’s sturdier house in Fort Myers, near her favorite brewery.

Steffen was in line Tuesday night outside its doors, for the food truck that was parked in front of Fort Myers Brewing Company. A few places ahead of her, Niki Rutkowski, waited with her girlfriend.

“We had a couple boxes of Cheez-Its not too long ago,” Rutkowki said. “We still have food, but it’s nice to kind of just get out of the house.”

A woman waits for her order at the pickup window of the Doner Kebab King Karl food truck.
Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU

Rutkowski said she usually sees a food truck at the brewery on Tuesdays — to serve the trivia night crowd — but the line that stretched from the truck and wrapping around the warehouse was not the usual.

“It’s just crazy because of all the people,” Rutkowski said. “If more places open, obviously, you think less people.”

What was also unusual at the brewery after the storm was the bed taking up most of the back office.

“We rode out the storm here with 13 other people,” Jennifer Gratz-Whyte said. “We actually have power lines on our house right now, so we’re going to be here for the foreseeable future.”

The bed Fort Myers Brewing Company owner Jennifer Gratz-Whyte and her husband, Rob, shared during Hurricane Irma
Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU

Gratz-Whyte and her husband, Rob, are the brewers behind the first Fort Myers craft brewery.

Even with all the new breweries in Southwest Florida, Fort Myers Brewing Company is, without a doubt, the most successful. Last year, it was named the best brewery in Florida at the annual Brewers Ball, beating out big names like Cigar City and Funky Buddha.

A line waits to order at the bar of Fort Myers Brewing Company.
Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU

It not only has the most repeat customers but it also has the largest facilities, which could have aided in the storm.

“We were going to climb into the brewing equipment, into the boil kettle, because that’s heavy enough it likely wouldn’t be taken,” Gratz-Whyte said.

But, they did not need to. The roof did not come off, as they’d feared. The building sustained minimal damage with only the flooded parking lot to worry about. Power was back on within the day.

Gratz-Whyte said they have spoilage insurance, but if the power had not returned — in another 24 hours, the brewery was looking at a loss of about $300,000 of product.

Growlers ranging from 32 to 64 ounces of Fort Myers Brewing Company's original-recipe beers
Credit Rachel Iacovone / WGCU

“When beer spoils, it’s not like it can make you sick,” Gratz-Whyte said. “It’s just that it tastes bad. We wouldn’t want to serve beer that tastes bad.”

Fort Myers Brewing Company is open regular hours all week and will host at least one food truck per day — for those craving something different than canned soup after the storm.