It’s been a little over eight months since a fire destroyed Sarasota’s iconic JR’s Old Packinghouse Café and the warehouses behind it. Walk in today, and it’s as if nothing ever happened. JR (JR Garraus) along with the hard work of his crew, customers and community has recreated this eclectic, down home bar and restaurant to look almost exactly as it has since the 90s when it first opened.
Thousands of chotchkies line almost every square inch of the walls (JR says it’s only about three quarters of the chotchkies…they quit after that); the same black and red color palette; the old wooden sign made from recycled materials a customer made; the small stage moved to another corner; same wrap around bar; the same tables and chairs that don’t match.
It’s rare in today’s bumper to bumper, fast-paced Sarasota scene that ‘some things never change.’ But for JR’s it’s true. Besides, why fix it if it ain’t broken?
What’s even more amazing is that his friendly crew of servers and his bartender of 18 years quit the jobs they had to find after the fire and came back.
“This is my fun job,” said Lana, one of several servers at JR’s. This is family. I love the customers. And who couldn’t love JR?”
John, a regular at the bar, says it’s his home watering hole. What did John do these eight months during renovations? “I quit drinking for eight months…” he joked. “I come in for that fat man over there,” he said, teasing the bartender Cletith, a 70-something character originally from Mississippi. He’s a legend and more than one customer said it.
For Doug and Beverly, who’ve been ‘coming here for 25 years,’ it’s the atmosphere, the home cooking and the friendly people, the customers and staff, that keep them coming back. “We just love it here – the food is great and the atmosphere is just so homey…it’s a family affair.”
JR says his customer base is as eclectic as his décor. “I’ll look out in the parking lot and see a Bentley, a Jag, and an old beat up truck,” JR said. Gorgeous women dressed in high heals and men in their work boots just off the farm interact with the staff and ‘everyone is like family:” the girls and customers said over and over.
“If you’re looking for a place to eat a fast bite, don’t bother,” said JR. Meaning people come here to relax, stay for a long time, eat homemade soups through desserts, have a beer or two, and just chill.
In the evenings, the place transforms to a music lover’s haven, as JR brings in the best in blues, singer/songwriters, folk and bluegrass acts as part of the fun six nights a week from 7 to 10 p.m. Sundays are set aside for JR and his crew to rest…”we all need a break,” he said. “Everyday I’d get phone calls and emails from people asking when we’d be open again…it’s what kept me going,” JR said.
A fundraiser was held in August and the event drew thousands JR said. “It was bigger than the event at Robarts that was held the same day.” While he admits, it took every nickel they could scrape up to do it, and they started the first day with change from the cookie jar, JR is beaming at his accomplishment. Business is back to booming as usual. “It’s fabulous. Awesome. Incredible…whatever good words you can come up with,” JR said about his little rustic beer and food joint on Packinghouse Road.
Be sure to stop in when you have time to spare and come with an appetite. The food is all made from scratch and the portions are huge. They’re recognized for their Cubans (piled with pulled pork and voted best in Florida), burgers, soups and homemade desserts. Of Cuban descent, JR loves their chicken and yellow rice and features a great assortment of Cuban food along with American favorites. His Aunt, one of the cooks, gets mad at him when he samples the chick pea and sausage soup in the mornings…but that’s what families do. No wonder 100% of his staff is back. Marla, whose mom makes the desserts, cried every week until they reopened JR said. “It’s my family…I wouldn’t work anywhere else,” Marla said.
JR’s is located at 987 S. Packinghouse Rd just off Fruitville and Palmer. Call 941-371-9358 or visit the website at www.packinghousecafe.com or Facebook for information on entertainment and more. The website is simple and folksy…just like the café.
photos by Patti Pearson