EAST COUNTY — Sitting among 152 dead snakes and a stuffed bobcat, a group of Manatee County natives, some of them fifth generation, reminisced about a place that hasn’t changed all that much.
Except now the roads leading to it are paved. And there is no longer a laundromat inside the restaurant — where more tables cover what was once a dance floor.
“You go back to your roots here,” said Tammy Lowe, the granddaughter of former Manatee County Commissioner Ralph Clark. “I used to ride my horse out here from Lockwood Ridge Road. It was out in the sticks, but this was our little swimming hole — our beach. It’s pretty much the same now.”
Small aesthetics aside, the legendary Linger Lodge & Campground has stayed true to its Old Florida roots — and many hope it stays that way as it changes hands another time.
The owners of the campground and restaurant, Marvin Kaplan and Mike Bennett, the Manatee County supervisor of elections, have put it up for sale.
They had hoped to develop the 10-acre property along the Braden River when they bought it for $3 million in 2005 from founder Frank Gamsky, who turned a rattlesnake-infested pit into a picnic business and, then, a road kill-themed restaurant.
Its menu, famous for unusual offerings such as gator nuggets and frog legs, earned the business a feature spot on the Food Network’s “Al Roker’s Weird Restaurants.”
Since they took over, Kaplan and Bennett have puchased a 10-acre former hunting camp across the river, plus three other smaller parcels, expanding Linger Lodge to 22 acres.
The partners put Linger Lodge up for auction once before, in 2008, but did not receive a sufficient bid.
Kaplan said they waited out the economy. He believes now is the right time to strike a deal.
“The world has changed since 2005 and so have we,” Kaplan said. “We hope whoever buys it keeps the place like it is. People love that restaurant.”
Kaplan said it’s possible the RV park can be sold separately from the restaurant.
He added he’d be happy to keep the restaurant and sell the park.
But the owners realize they have little say about what happens next.
David LaRusso, the general manager of the Linger Lodge restaurant, knows about the sensitivity of change.
When he assumed his role in 2010, LaRusso tweaked the menu to offer healthier options and added live music on weekends.
“We went from paper and plastic to a glass operation,” LaRusso said.
He tried to make the spot attractive and visible to more people, even adding the restaurant’s address to the menu to make it easier to find, without sacrificing its character.
The restaurant still carries its farce “roadkill” menu, which features items such as “chunk of skunk” and the “flat cat: served as a single or in a stack.”
The Braden River Kayak and Americana Music Fest now calls this place home, as it will for another time Oct. 12, as does the Rocky Bottom Bluegrass Festival.
“This is a dying breed,” LaRusso said. “There are maybe two to three places like quintessential Old Florida on this coast. To lose it would be kind of heartbreaking.”
LaRusso adds that his 20 to 30 person staff, a mixture of part-time and full-time staffers that shifts during season, has remained consistent, and business has doubled since he took over.
He’s proud business has stayed strong enough to support staffers, and he worries about their fate.
“I take pride that folks who come to work here can count on it to put food on the table,” LaRusso said.
Gamsky, the quirky 82-year-old founder known for being a self-taught taxidermist, no longer lingers here much.
As recently as 2005, even after selling it, he worked 60 hours weekly at the restaurant. Now, he comes here occasionally for dinner.
If he had come on this day in late September, he would have seen a church group of 120 people book a reservation for the restaurant — during slow season.
He’d also probably have found Jeff Lewis fixing toilets and his wife, Rita, sautéing flounder at the restaurant.
The Lewises have been here 10 years. They live here, as do approximately 50 full-time residents, in a park model home that’s bigger than a RV but smaller than a mobile home.
The home is parked by the river. From his doorstep, Jeff Lewis can see campfires on weekends.
Lewis, a large, tattooed maintenance man, watches the action from his golf cart, his transportation from fix to fix.
The regulars, few among the 105 campsites, do potlucks and meet for coffee and donuts on Thursdays during season.
The Lewises once traveled by RV for 10 consecutive years. They’ve grown comfortable in a home that hasn’t always seemed permanent.
“We don’t like that it’s for sale,” Jeff Lewis said. “We just worry. We live here and work here. If somebody were to close it down, we lose our home and our job. Usually it’s just one or the other. We can find work, though. We have skills. It’s not that.”
For Kaplan, Linger Lodge is business.
He described strong interest in the property but would not speculate on a timeline for the sale.
“This is just a piece of real estate,” Kaplan. “We’re trying to move on.”
LaRusso, a longtime restaurant manager, understands that.
“It would not be my choice to sell it, but business is business,” LaRusso said.
For those who live here, uncertainty never seems to go away — even for a place with so little change in its character.
“Most here have seen everything,” Jeff Lewis said. “We’ve seen different owners; we’ve seen it go up for sale; we’ve seen it go up for auction.”
Lewis’ ringing cell phone interrupted the thought, but he spoke through it.
“We’re kind of gun shy. It might sell. It might not sell. I suppose it probably will sell.”
With that, a chirping frog ringtone sent Lewis off to another assignment.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].