Papa Joe’s Is Back!

More than a decade after its demolition, the iconic Papa Joe’s has been rebuilt, surpassing its former glory. Originally built in 1938, the property has served generations of Conches and tourists and, thanks to its new local owners, will continue to do so.

Born and raised in the Keys, Charles Hertel has always had a connection to Papa Joe’s. His parents, George and Dorothy Hertel, were good friends with the previous owner, Frank Curtis. Curtis had acquired the waterfront restaurant in the late 80s and took it to the next level, adding the famous tiki bar, which Charles’ father helped Curtis design.

Sadly, after Curtis’ passing, Papa Joe’s eventually closed in 2006, and the building was demolished after a hurricane in 2011. Locals were left only with beautiful memories and the ugly remains of what once had been. Being such a challenging property to develop, it switched hands a few more times before Charles Hertel decided to try his hand at it.

The Hertel name is well-known in the Keys, most strongly tied to the Islamorada Fish Company, which Charles’ parents founded. Apparently, the desire to build something special for the Keys community runs in the family, as Charles couldn’t help but be drawn to the nearly-forgotten piece of Keys history.

After graduating from the University of Central Florida, Charles returned home with no intention of entering the restaurant business. In fact, his parents, despite their success in the industry, had always warned Charles to avoid it. Heeding their advice, he became a backcountry fishing guide out of Bud & Mary’s.

However, as fate would have it, Bud & Mary’s is located across from Papa Joe’s. Every day, Charles would see the dilapidated property and feel the same pang of regret felt by so many locals. He would turn his head away and think, ‘What a shame’ until one day, he refused to look away.

Determined to restore the waterfront for the community, Charles applied all he learned from his parents and business school to formulate a plan. He excitedly shared this plan with one of his best fishing clients, who had become a very good friend. Charles was telling him how he already had investors showing interest when Bob Lee interjected.

With years of success owning Wendy’s fast-food restaurants and running international corporations, Bob asked, “Why don’t you and I do it together?” Charles blinked in surprise and then jumped at the opportunity to partner with someone who not only had extensive experience but also loved the Keys community and its unique lifestyle.

Bob Lee and Mica Perry

Originally from West Virginia, the Keys were Bob Lee’s and Mica Perry’s second home for decades until they finally made it permanent several years ago. Restoring Papa Joe’s would give them the opportunity to further dig in their roots and make a difference in the community he proudly calls his own. He and his significant other, Mica Perry, excitedly partnered with Charles, and they bought the property in 2021.

To stay true to the original, they rebuilt the famous restaurant and tiki bar on the same footprint while honoring yet improving the design. As locals themselves, the owners hired contractors and staff from within the community as much as possible, including an exceptional local chef.

Capt. Charles Hertel and Chef Alan Wilkinson

Papa Joe’s will once more serve as one of the best sunset viewpoints in the Keys. It’s perfectly situated for customers to take in the stunning colors every evening while enjoying a cold drink and good food. The new dock is the largest of its kind in Islamorada and can accommodate more than 25 boats up to 40 feet long. Charles, Bob, and Mica understand that even though the Keys are growing and changing, the history and lifestyle can and should be preserved. Papa Joe’s is back and here to stay.

– Jerrica Mah is a writer, Army wife, and freelance book editor, who loves to travel with her family.

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