The relationship between Debbie Lauricella and her 20 years at Whale's Rib in Deerfield Beach is like a marriage: consumed by it constantly, and even when she thought about leaving, she loved it too much to walk away.
She arrived from Boston fresh from a divorce with her 3-year-old son in tow. No restaurant experience, no South Florida experience, and no idea if it was the right thing to do. Two decades later, she's held every position in the restaurant and still cleans toilets if it needs to get done. She's currently general manager but still gets behind the line when she can.
The 30-year-old restaurant was featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives last August, and even though it's had a strong following since its inception, Lauricella says sales increased by 30 percent after the show aired. The place may be a little behind on the times (no website, and it starting accepting credit cards only ten years ago), but business is strong, employees are good, and the food is still better than ever. Shoes and shirts are still optional.
Clean Plate Charlie: As general manager, do you get into the kitchen to cook a lot?
Debbie Lauricella: I still get in there once a week. I've done everything. I started out waitressing, and I still miss bartending. I've expedited [on the line], and I still go back there to make sandwiches. I like the challenge of the kitchen. I do everything if it needs to be done.
How much say did you have in the menu? How often does it change?
Since we've opened, we've only added about ten items to the menu but never taken anything off. About 15 years ago, we got a flat-top grill in the kitchen. Before that, we used to have a little grill out back, under a tent, and only use it for specials on Fridays.
Do you ever get creative with your menu? Do you ever make anything that's not on the menu just for you and your staff?
Not really. We don't really change anything, ever. We always seem to eat it the way it is on the menu. If it's not broke, don't fix it. There isn't really a need to make anything different.
You're right next to Flannigan's and around the corner from Bru's Room -- two popular South Florida chain restaurants. How does your menu and business compete with them?
We just sort of... wing it. We all have codes and rules to follow, just like everyone else. But Flannigan's has about the same amount of seating as we do yet only do half the business. We haven't changed much in 30 years, and our customers like that. It's the things like our Rock Shrimp (market price), the Dolphin Key West ($9.99), and the Lobster Bisque ($4.99/cup). People like our open kitchen because it shows we don't have anything to hide. It's kind of like a Cheer's bar, and we like it that way.
What is one thing people misconstrue about your restaurant?
That it's harder to find than it really is. People are scared of driving around the corner and completely miss us. They call us all the time asking where we are, and I say "Next to Flannigan's!" and they've passed us. I don't get it!
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For only seating 100 people, you're still a pretty small restaurant. How often do you get food shipments in on a weekly basis?
Every day. We go through 150 pounds of Dolphin every single day, along with ten cases of oysters. For our world famous whale fries, we go through about ten cases of potatoes a day, and there are 90 pounds of potatoes in each case.
With the nice plug on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, are there plans for expansion or opening up another location?
We already did expand. The bar used to be a hair salon, and the extended dining room was a laundromat. A few years ago, the owner tried opening up a place on Singer Island, and it didn't work out. Things are working out just fine the way they are.