Owner Rita Lewis says the restaurant reopening feels like a homecoming on Braden River.
If owner Rita Lewis ever wondered about the dedication of her Linger Lodge Restaurant customers, she was provided testament when the East County restaurant reopened Aug. 5 after two long years of closure due to the pandemic and a construction project.
On Aug. 5-7, Lakewood Ranch's Tom Pomper and his wife, Kerie Stevens, were zipping around the restaurant, showing people to their tables, bussing tables and washing dishes.
Pomper and Stevens are not employees. They are longtime customers who simply want to support Lewis in any way they can. In this case, it was by providing volunteer labor.
“She is the most amazing woman,” Stevens said of Lewis. “We really want to see her succeed. We’re going to do whatever we have to help her.”
Pomper and Stevens knew Lewis was struggling to hire staff, so they stepped forward.
“It was amazing to see the excitement of the community that she had reopened,” Stevens said. “I can tell you I’ve never done (worked in a restaurant) in my entire life, but it was actually fun. I’m a social person so talking to people, getting feedback from them, walking around the tables to make sure everything was good, was an amazing experience.”
While Lewis said it has been difficult to get a staff in place, she has loved the support she has received from both the community and former workers who have returned.
“Once I opened and word of mouth got out through my employees and through the community, I hired seven people (Aug. 10),” Lewis said.
One worker who returned is East County’s Carissa Gunderson, who was thrilled when she received the call from Lewis that the restaurant was reopening.
Gunderson, who has worked at the restaurant since she was 15, kept in constant contact with Lewis.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Gunderson, who is now 27 years old. “I’ve been dying to get back here.”
Lewis said the long anticipated reopening felt like a homecoming.
“It was amazing,” she said. “The reception (from the community), and having all the employees back was amazing. I’ve been here for 10 years so it was like coming home.”
The construction project was to upgrade the Linger Lodge RV Campgrounds.
Previous employees, like Gunderson, who took on other jobs while Linger Lodge Restaurant was closed were eager to return. Lewis said some employees who started jobs outside the restaurant industry also have started working for Linger Lodge Restaurant part-time.
Lewis said the time the restaurant was closed was “just crazy” because there was nothing she could do given the circumstances. She said it’s been a tough two years for everybody, but she’s excited to have her family coming back together.
Gunderson loves the restaurant has a "family" feel rather than being a corporate chain restaurant.
“Everybody takes care of each other,” said Gunderson, who is the bar manager. “Rita is like my second mom. She’s been there for me through everything. It’s like a second home for me. I just feel really comfortable here.
"I’m proud of Rita because she’s put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into getting this place open.”
Geno Vittegleo, a bartender at Linger Lodge Restaurant, said he missed his customers.
“The customer base is phenomenal, and the people I work with are great, too,” he said. “Of all the bartending jobs I’ve had, this is one of the best.”
Vittegleo said he was happy that even though the campgrounds are getting upgrades, the restaurant has been untouched and stayed true to its Old Florida theme.
“This place has a lot of character,” Vittegleo said.
Customers can dine outside with a view of the Braden River. A 12-foot alligator hangs on the wall to the left of the entrance. Taxidermied animals are mounted around the restaurant.
The restaurant has a personal touch from its customers as well. Patches from customers who are retired police officers, firefighters and other first responders are on display. Customers’ license plates from around the country are on display as well.
“It’s like placing another person’s heart in here,” Lewis said. “It’s just a little piece of them hanging in here. When they come in, they light up and they’re all smiles. They’re like, ‘Look at that, that was mine.’ It just makes us all family.”
Although the feel of the restaurant has not changed, Lewis had to make adjustments to the menu due to supply chain issues. Lewis said many of customers’ favorites including the Linger Lodge Étouffeé, frog legs, fried green tomatoes and hush puppies remain on the menu.
Lewis hired a new chef, Scott Dalton, who looks forward to serving the community an “adventurous” menu.
“It’s an interesting menu,” Dalton said. “I’m going to get to do some smoking and maybe put some real creative, adventurous things on the menu that you won’t find in other places like exotic meats like venison or a rattlesnake stew. I have all the opportunities to do that here.”
In the coming months, Lewis hopes in time to increase the offerings on the menu to where it was before the restaurant closed and bring back live music and karaoke.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.