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Cafe L'Europe owner's charm flavored restaurants

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  • | 5:00 a.m. February 23, 2011
Titus Letschert and Betsie Coolidge
Titus Letschert and Betsie Coolidge
  • Sarasota
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Titus Letschert’s voice still echoes throughout restaurants in the Sarasota area.

Ray Arpke, chef/owner of Euphemia Haye and former chef at Café L’Europe, hears his old boss say:
“Anything less than your best is not good enough.”

“That always comes to mind when I think of him,” Arpke said.

Letschert, the longtime owner of Café L’Europe, was a perfectionist who for years personally tasted the lobster bisque, soup of the day, dressings and sauces every morning to ensure that they were flawless.
At Lazy Lobster Longboat Key, owner Michael Garey, a former Café L’Europe manager, often asks himself, “What would Titus do?” On a recent night, a party of 28 people arrived 25 minutes early for their reservation. Garey knew Titus would break out a few bottles of complimentary wine.

Bill Herlihy, who recently left his position as long-time Café L’Europe manager to open his own restaurant, Bridge Street Bistro, heard Letschert’s voice last Thursday, as he prepared for his opening night. The day before, he had visited with an ailing Letschert, who assured him that his opening night would be spectacular. With less than an hour until the doors opened, Herlihy worked frantically, and he heard Letschert say: “The show must go on.”

The next day, Friday, Feb. 18, Letschert died. He was 67.

Born July 5, 1943, Letschert became sold on the restaurant business as a child in his native Holland, after the executive chef of Dikker and Thyss Restaurant, in Amsterdam, showed him around the kitchen. He graduated from Saint Hubertes Hotel and Restaurant School in Amsterdam and worked at restaurants in Holland, Germany, Canada and Bermuda before moving to New York City with just $500 in his suitcase.
He took a job at CBS founder Bill Paley’s Ground Floor Restaurant and went on to co-manage the Sign of the Dove Restaurant and Yellow Finger Discotheque, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, N.Y. It was there that he met Norbert Goldner, who would become his business partner.

At Sign of the Dove, Letschert caught the eye of Dr. Murray “Murf” Klauber, who had recently opened The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. He hired Letschert in 1971 to move to Sarasota to work for the Colony.
But Letschert and Goldner had dreamed of opening a restaurant together in which they would combine their Dutch and German influences, and on Jan. 21, 1973, they opened Café L’Europe on St. Armands Circle.

Some of the area’s top restaurateurs learned from Letschert. Harry Christensen, of Harry’s Continental Kitchens, J.P. Knaggs, of Bijou Café, and Bob Fracalossy, of the Lazy Lobster, along with Arpke, Garey and Herlihy, were just a few local culinary stars who worked at Café L’Europe before opening their own restaurants.

“All of the people who worked for him ended up becoming very successful,” said longtime Shenkel’s Restaurant owner and operator Edith Barr Dunn.

Later, in 1994, Letschert opened Café on the Bay on Longboat Key, which, in 2009, he sold to Garey, who transformed the restaurant into Lazy Lobster Longboat Key.

Although his restaurants were known for specialties such as brandied duck and Chateaubriand served tableside, Letschert’s personality was what gave the restaurants much of their flavor.

“He had the ability to make you feel 10 feet tall,” Garey said.

Garey recalled a night in 1979, three weeks after he was hired at Café L’Europe as a busboy. He was 20 and certain that Letschert didn’t know he was alive. But when Garey brought his parents to the restaurant for dinner, Letschert proclaimed in his Dutch accent: “Mr. and Mrs. Garey, your table will be ready in 10 minutes.” He added: “If your son was working tonight, it would have been ready.”

Letschert was also a known jokester. Garey and Herlihy remembered a night when Letschert gave them his credit card to pay for an employee’s bachelor party. The next day, he acted angry and showed them a local gossip column that included an item about the wild night the guys at Café L’Europe had enjoyed.
But it was just an elaborate prank. Days earlier, he had hired a graphic designer to design a fake column.

But there were some things Letschert did quietly. Every year, Letschert anonymously donated hundreds of hams and turkeys to local shelters during the holidays. He also hosted 50 to 60 terminally ill children at Café on the Bay each year. There, he would charm the children and their families — and then cry in his office for hours.

Looking back on the life of the man they called “Dad,” Garey and Herlihy said that Letschert changed the Sarasota restaurant scene — not just through his own restaurants — but through the many restaurateurs he inspired. Many say they might not be restaurant owners without Letschert’s influence. And, today, in their own restaurants, they still hear the voice with the Dutch accent that always demanded perfection.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t hear his voice,” Garey says. “Every situation, every decision has Titus in it.”

Letschert is survived by his wife, Betsie Coolidge, of Sarasota; brothers Tom, of Holland, and Trudo, of Sarasota; sister, Thea, of Holland; friend Caroline Brown, of Sarasota; and beloved dachshund, Gustav.

A memorial service took place Wednesday, at St. Martha Catholic Church, 200 N. Orange Ave., Sarasota. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,, or Tidewell Hospice and Palliative Care,

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]