A labor of love: Lighthouse Cafe celebrates over two decades on Sanibel
It was around this time – nearly 30 years ago, that Mike Billheimer bought the Lighthouse Cafe back in 1988. Billheimer comes from a family who thrived in the hospitality and restaurant business: in the ’50’s, his parents owned a beach motel on West Gulf Drive and his aunt owned one of the first restaurants on Sanibel, the Nutmeg House which was open from 1960 to 1974.
“Both my parents and my aunt sold their property within a year or two of one another in the early ’70’s. (The property) was eventually developed into condominiums,” Billheimer said. “The Nutmeg House property was in existence where The Sandbar Restaurant is.”
Born and raised on Sanibel, Billheimer studied at Florida International University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management in 1980. After managing 25 restaurants and working at different hotels in large cities like Los Angeles and New York, he came back to Sanibel and opened the Lighthouse Cafe on Oct. 1, 1988.
“I wound up leaving the corporate world to run this restaurant,” Billheimer said. “My dream was to have my own restaurant,” Billheimer said. “I never thought I’d be back on Sanibel.”
The first year of working in the restaurant while married with a baby on the way, was a blur to him.
“I worked seven days a week, cooking, working out front. I cooked single-handedly at night six nights a week. I was the only cook and we were busy,” Billheimer said.
Over the years, he has kept the core of the menu the same, Billheimer said he has only changed the menu slightly. The restaurant places an emphasis on fresh ingredients. He makes a point to source local shrimp and grouper. During season, he said he sells anywhere from 400-600 breakfast and lunch plates a day.
“We serve breakfast all day from 7 a.m. until we close at 3 p.m. which is a huge calling card,” Billheimer said.
From Dec. 30 to April 15, he offers a special dinner menu. Some of those offerings includes crusted fish over greens, fresh grouper platters and crunchy fried shrimp.
Over the years, the Lighthouse Cafe has attracted a diverse group of clientele – Billheimer has served everyone from your average Joe to multimillionaires. Art Garfunkel and Wilfred Brimley have even dined at the restaurant. Billheimer recalls Garfunkel always ordering the eggs benedict.
Consistency has played a key role in the restaurant staying open for over two decades: many of Billheimer’s employees have worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years. His chef and front-house manager are his original hires.
“We’ve seen each other through many triumphs and tragedies through the years, we have a bond and we know what we have to do – there’s a standard that I created early on.”
Billheimer partially credits his success due to growing up in the business.
“I grew up in very like-minded businesses that were personality driven. Like my aunts who owned the restaurants, it was not only really good comfort food, but it was the relationships they had with their customers. My parents the same way – we had a great little seven cottage motel that many of our closest friends were guests there. They became life-long friends. When my parents sold and retired, they all bought houses on Sanibel in my parent’s neighborhood. We had a whole neighborhood full of my parent’s former guests,” Billheimer said.
One of those families were his inspiration for owning a restaurant.
“It was a family that used to spend November through April at our one cottage on the beach. They owned a beautiful country inn in Vermont. I used to go as a little kid over there and just hang out with them. They were my parent’s age but they didn’t have kids. I’d get home from school and I’d go straight to their house to hang out. They had dinner and cocktails parties all winter long with all their friends because their restaurant was closed all winter. I grew up going over there to serve hors d’oeuvres. Then when I was old enough, I’d go on vacations with my parents to their place and work there over the summers. They were my true inspiration,” Billheimer said. “That’s what prompted me to go to school to study hotel and restaurant management.”
As far as any big changes to the restaurant goes, Billheimer plans on keeping things just the way they are.