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Times of the Islands Magazine

Lighthouse Cafe Owner Excited for Dinner Menu, Winter Season, Praises Sanibel Community

Known for its "World's Best Breakfast," the Lighthouse Cafe has been a Sanibel staple for more than 30 years. A lot has happened in the world since the cafe switched ownership two years ago, but the restaurant, also known for its proximity to the Sanibel Lighthouse, has weathered the proverbial storm.

We caught up with owner Dan Billheimer to discuss the location, popular menu items, the tight-knit Sanibel community, and the restaurant's success even in these uncertain times.

What was the main motivation for starting your business?

My uncle, Michael Billheimer, owned the cafe for 32 years prior to me taking over. I had grown up going to the cafe, and I’ve been in the restaurant business my entire life. When he had an opportunity to sell it, it was a long shot, but I said, "Consider me. Let me put my name in the hat if you don’t mind." I knew it probably wouldn’t happen, but it did. He considered it and things seemed to work out very well that way. He gave me an opportunity I would not have had otherwise. That was cool. I’ve been the owner of the Lighthouse Cafe for roughly two years now. That’s how I came to be the owner. It was definitely a family affair.

It was a pretty well-oiled machine when I took it over. I have employees that have been with us for 40 years. You always want to make it better. You don’t want to just settle. My background is in the culinary side of restaurants. The biggest impact I could make was with dinners. We’re open year-round for breakfast and lunch, but we are only open for dinners during the winter season. That being my wheelhouse, I did a lot of menu implementation, tried to put a polish, raise the dinners up a couple bars. That was an immediate thing. The culinary aspect touches breakfast and lunch, too, but dinners were the most impactful. Now, we make all our dressings and sauces. Our Bloody Mary mix is now a proprietary blend in-house. I made it more of a scratch kitchen than it already was and tried to bring the quality up.

What's something you wish people knew about your business?

I wish more people knew that we even exist on Sanibel. When you come on the island, it’s one road onto the island. You come to this four-way stop. Invariably, everybody turns right, because that’s a vast majority of where the island is—shopping, downtown, restaurants. Not very many people turn left. The only reason you turn left is to go see the Sanibel Lighthouse and to go to the Lighthouse Beach. There’s not much down there save a few small shops, our shopping center, and the marina. I’ve had customers tell me, 'We’ve been coming down here eight, 10, 20 years, and we never knew you were here!" I do some advertising. We’re still a pretty busy place, but for whatever reason, people do not turn left coming onto the island.

Personally speaking, what is your favorite thing about your business?

I’ve worked in this business for a very long time. I have really been enjoying the idea of ownership. We all have bosses. All my bosses are the customers that walk through the door. I give a lot of credence to my employees. The bottom line is, I really enjoy the latitude of operating a business after putting all this time in working for others. It’s been very rewarding and great to do my own thing, actualize my own vision, make my own mistakes, which even has its reward, I guess. The fact that it’s down here on Sanibel makes it great. I love it. Having done white tablecloth, lobster tails, that kind of service, I wasn’t sure if I’d really enjoy eggs and pancakes, that sort of thing, and I’ve absolutely never regretted it. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What is a common question you get? Your answer to it?

"Are we close to the lighthouse?' If there weren’t any palm trees, you could see it from the cafe. You get a lot of questions, but they’re more like, "Do you have gluten-free options, can you accommodate vegetarians?" I don’t get asked too many other questions.

What's the biggest compliment you've received about your business?

I've been told since I have taken over the restaurant, it feels like nothing has been missed. It’s been a seamless transition. It’s been operating like it always has. The quality hasn’t gone down. At the top of my uncle’s game, he was pure gold and the place was just roaring. To carry on that legacy and have those same compliments, that’s probably the biggest and best honor for me.

What is your most popular dish? And, personally, what is your favorite?

We do both sweet and savory very well. We’re primarily a breakfast joint. When somebody asks me what should they have or what I suggest, that’s what I invariably go to. For sweet, we have a coconut almond French toast that is just off the hook. I don’t get all self-tooty very often. I try to stay humble, but that is a very popular dish that just steamrolls people. If you’re not into sweet, we have our own Key lime hollandaise sauce, eggs Benedict, crab cakes Benedict—really speak to people who are into savory breakfast.

My favorite, the way we do them, is our eggs, bacon, our breakfast potatoes, and our homemade strawberry preserves and toast. Our basic two eggs your style and all of the above is really consistently good and always there for me.

Are you involved with or do you support any local nonprofits, community organizations or causes?

When it comes to fundraisers and stuff like that on the island, invariably, the answer is we always try to say yes, whether it’s for The Sanibel School, which my daughter attends, Kiwanis, F.I.S.H., CROW, we always try to accommodate them.

We do have a really big cause locally called Captains for Clean Water. Water health has become a very important issue around here. It made international news, the red tide, it just killed us. I moved here from Colorado. I didn’t know much about water health let alone lighthouses, to be honest with you, but I learned real quickly. The thing about water health is it touches everybody. It’s a huge thing down here. It doesn’t matter if you teach school, are a plumber, a fishing guide or in the hospitality business, it affects you. If you do not make that a priority, everybody suffers out here. I got to see firsthand how much we suffered. We aim to help in keeping releases from Lake Okeechobee to a minimum, so everybody out here, not just tourism and hospitality, but that every single industry out here stays healthy. If the water’s healthy, the economy is healthy. Everything seems to be tied to that. It’s a big one.

Why is this city important to you? 

My family grew up here. Even though I didn’t grow up here, I’m a third-generation restauranteur here on Sanibel. I grew up coming down here, as did many of my customers. Sanibel is a special place because it never changes. It’s very timeless. There are a lot of restrictions in place to keep Sanibel from changing into a mid-rise, high-rise, pave-the-island kind of thing. Sanibel does a few things very well: ecology and conservation, water, exercise, beaches. It’s really good that way, it touches a lot of people, and it’s very unique for those reasons. If you get it, you get it. If you’re into those things, there’s a lot of utility here. And besides, it forces you to relax and chill out, put your toes in the sand.

It’s a priority of mine to support all the small businesses. To give everybody a piece, get out there, dine out two to three times a week as often as I can and try to give back. It’s a very tough, very unique time to be a small business owner, let alone a restaurant owner, so you try to support everybody that way, at least here on the island.

Do you have any upcoming events, specials or new items/services that people should know about?

All of our usually very successful, ringing-in-the-winter season events have either been put on pause or converted into a social-distancing affair—completely morphed into something different. Taste of the Islands has completely changed. Not to say it won’t be successful, it’s just different. For us, we are looking forward to opening for dinner, we are looking forward to the winter season. For the Lighthouse Cafe, you always try to make the next year better than the last. You take what you learned, polish it, and apply it. We’re looking forward to keeping our dinner game strong and welcoming back all our winter guests.

How has COVID-19 impacted your business? Have you rebounded? Did you do anything special given the circumstances?

As compared to up North, we have been given the latitude to open up 100 percent. Masks have been left to the municipalities as to whether or not they are mandatory indoors, which they are down here on Sanibel. It’s one of those things where you want to try to make sure you touch everybody and make sure everybody’s comfortable. There are customers that are still very leery about dining and once they know you’re open to 100-percent capacity, it makes them more leery. We try to hold back on capacity inside and keep social distancing inside.

We’ve been allowed to put tables outside under our overhang, which I’m going to develop more. All of our employees are wearing masks and following all of the PPE instructions. It’s very important to make your guests feel comfortable all the way down to individual ketchups and salts. For the people feeling more cavalier, ready to get out and engage, get back, we have seating inside, no problem.

Something we have not been allowed to do until recently is develop outside seating and it’s been working out very well and embraced. We’re trying to accommodate everybody and welcome everybody in these very uncertain times. You’re always crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s and doing what you can to make sure your customers and employees are safe, still operating, and moving forward without going out of business. 

Anything else you'd like to add?

I’ve worked in restaurants all my life. I have seen a lot of owner-operators go through challenges. When I first moved down here, I was into ownership only a month and a half before red tide hit. The insane red tide, the 100-year red tide. Ever since then, it’s been challenge after challenge. In small business, it’s you against the world. Corona[virus] nonetheless! I would tell you, I’d still rather be doing this than anything I’ve ever done previously. I’ve really enjoyed the ride, despite the challenges that were thrown at me. You keep on working on it, hacking away, and one of these times, it’s going to lie down and it’s certainly all worth it.