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Times of the Islands Magazine

Lighthouse Cafe Enters 29th Year in Business This Year

Dec 28, 2017 09:19PM ● Published by Kevin

Photo courtesy of Lighthouse Cafe of Sanibel on Facebook.

Lighthouse Cafe began its 29th season of serving dinner in Sanibel on Friday, Dec. 15. 

The restaurant offers a varied menu of bistro style items including homemade soups, salads, ribs, chicken, pasta, prime rib au jus, burgers, shrimp and fresh fish. They also offer daily dinner specials that focus on creatively prepared, fresh fish to include "sweet potato crusted hogfish on a salad with artisan greens, vegetables and a homemade vinaigrette." 

Michael Billheimer took over the Lighthouse Cafe in Sept. 1988. The owner at the time, a dentist in upstate New York, was having some operational issues, Billheimer said, and was interested in selling.

"I was hired as a general manager with the agreement that if I could increase the profits in the first year, then I could have half the profit in equity and eventually buy him out," he said. "The first year I worked 80 hours a week and had great success tightening things up that I earned 25 percent of the business. We agreed to the same terms the second year and earned another 24 percent. At the beginning of the third year, he agreed to sell the remaining stock to me and I became the owner."

As of the past year and a half, Billheimer has pulled back from his full-time position as host, but is still handling all of the administrative duties, such as accounting, menu planning and supervising his management staff. He also pops in frequently to visit with guests and meet with managers.

Several of his key employees have been with the establishment from the beginning, and most of the others have worked there for at least 10 years. One of his managers came with the restaurant when he took over. They have created many memories together, but one of the most prevalent was one where tragedy and heartwarming action intertwined.

"It is memorable because it endeared me to my core staff and built a bond that was defined the culture of our staff for many years hence," Billheimer said. 

Six years into Billheimer's regime as the cafe's owner, his son, Mikey, 5 at the time, became terminally ill with a very rare neurological disease. The onset was abrupt, Billheimer said, and necessitated a liver transplant immediately. Mikey, his mother and Billheimer were uprooted to a renowned children's hospital in Chicago for what became a 3-month stay as complications continued to arise. 

"During this time I began commuting, every five days, back to check on the business," Billheimer said. "When I returned each time my staff would forbid me to work and took care all of my responsibilities. On the third trip back I discovered that my staff had conducted a fundraiser to offset staggering medical costs."

Months later, after Mikey was brought home, the staff, along with several family members had another "Thanksgiving for Mikey" fundraiser to further help the family with medical costs.

"This showing of love has made this more than a job, but a productive family unit that I have since been forever grateful," Billheimer said.

The staff's dedication to itself and the community are a part of a formula that has worked for Billheimer's operation over the course of these past 29 years.

"When you dine there, you get a feeling of camaraderie, cohesiveness and efficiency that your rarely ever see in a restaurant," he said. "Having all worked together for so long, we have developed a culture that makes working there fun and with the closeness that we share, everyone enjoys their jobs."

When the customer sees this, Billheimer said, they reward the service staff accordingly which he believes makes their jobs some of most lucrative service jobs on the island. With the consistency of employees, the restaurant's standards are also consistent, which Billheimer said results in many satisfied guests. 

"The Lighthouse Cafe is more than just a great cafe with good food and service," Billheimer said. "This place has soul."

Many other memories were created over the three generations of customers that have frequented the Lighthouse Cafe.

"I will see a young family that has been coming there since they were toddlers and now they have their own families coming in with them and their parents," he said. "To see these wonderful folks enjoying the family traditions of coming to Sanibel and having breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe is what has made this more than just a job."

Over the years, Lighthouse Cafe has received many accolades for its food. Its French toast and fresh-squeezed orange juice was featured in Bon Appetite Magazine. The key lime hollandaise was published in Gourmet Magazine.

Southern Living Magazine mentioned the restaurant in an article entitled, "Best Food Finds in the South." Country Living Magazine featured Lighthouse Cafe in a story entitled, "Top 100 Comfort Food Menu Items." The restaurant scored 12th on the list for its homemade wholewheat blueberry hotcakes.

"Our Eggs Benedict are incredible," Billheimer said. "For lunch, our locally caught, fresh grouper sandwich is the most popular lunch item. My favorite dish is the Seafood Benedict with Alfredo sauce."

Reservations are recommended. Call-ahead seating is available. To do so, call 239-472-0303. Big parties are welcome, too. Lighthouse Cafe was closed on Christmas day, but is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week for the rest of the season. For more information, visit lighthousecafe.com.
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