After his floating restaurant capsized last spring on Fort Lauderdale’s sandbar, Jay Lycke sat inside his dark houseboat, brokenhearted, dreaming of the water and the jalapeño-stuffed gator bites he’d once served to hungry boaters.
His loyal customers didn’t let Lycke wallow in self-pity for long. Days after Jay’s Sandbar Food Boat sank on May 8, 50 volunteers rushed in and helped dredge his twisted hulk of a wreckage off the sandbar. They hauled up ruined stoves and motors, busted deep-fryers and chest freezers brimming with spoiled food. Next, they donated $12,000 via GoFundMe as seed money toward a replacement.
Now, eight months later, the new Jay’s Sandbar Food Boat is finally shipshape and ready to return to the sandbar, Fort Lauderdale’s shallow party playground on the Intracoastal Waterway. Lycke’s food boat aims to start slinging lamb gyros and Hong Kong-style pork nachos by lunchtime on Saturday, Jan. 21, weather permitting.
“I was in this dark, dark place,” Lycke recalls. “I had champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but I was on a beer budget. Then everyone reached out. It was like the Amish and someone’s barn had burned down and 50 people showed up to rebuild my barn.”
Some $70,000 later, Lycke’s new 34-footer is still a work in progress. It’s 4 feet shorter from aft to stern, the kitchen is tinier, and the hull hasn’t been tricked out with the signature menu signs, nautical billboards and banana hammocks that distinguished his old food boat.
Still, he’s grateful it’s seaworthy at all, he says.
After scouting the coastline for weeks for used vessels, he found it in Hobe Sound last summer, and bought it from a retiring man who’d run out of money converting it into a houseboat. “It was already gutted out, so I was in a good position to put in a professional kitchen,” Lycke says.
He drove it home to Fort Lauderdale, limping south along the Intracoastal at 9 mph. “And when I got there, I practically crashed it into my boat slip,” Lycke recalls.
Jay’s Sandbar Food Boat first opened in late 2017 as Fort Lauderdale’s only floating restaurant. He picked the sandbar, located north of the 17th Street Causeway, because it was a weekend hotspot where hundreds of hard-partying, bikinied revelers indulged against a backdrop of Las Olas mansions.
The boat is registered with the state as a mobile food service vehicle, the same license given to food trucks. (His revived food boat passed its most recent inspections in December.)
At peak popularity during the pandemic, Jay’s Sandbar served fried calamari, clam nachos and garlic-teriyaki chicken wings to 150 boaters a day.
When a rogue wave churned the waters around the sandbar on May 8, one of the food boat’s pontoons blew out, causing it to pitch over and partially sink.
Lycke says he nearly avoided a worse maritime disaster. While he and Colette Murray, his girlfriend and assistant, dove into the water, one of his cooks quickly sealed the propane tanks and cut off the gas burners.
“Otherwise that boat would have been a f—— fireball,” Lycke says. “All that cooking oil was flammable.”
Over last summer and fall, generosity poured in from Jay’s Sandbar customers who’d spotted viral news of his sunken boat circulating in outlets such as the South Florida Sun Sentinel, CBS News and his Facebook business page.
Jamie Jacobs, one of Lycke’s frequent customers, delivered a $1,500 check to Lycke in person after meeting him at a fundraiser event at Fort Lauderdale’s Downtowner Saloon. She operates a nonprofit called John Michael Baker Foundation, which runs an annual fishing tournament named after her son who died in a boating accident in 2015.
“I saw he was an emotional wreck, in a really bad place,” Jacobs says. “I could identify with him that way. We talked about being able to pick yourself back up and move forward. And I believed in him wholeheartedly, that whatever he raised from the community he was going to put back into the community.”
Buddy Sherman, the affable owner of Southport Raw Bar, saw the sunken boat on social media and called Lycke with options. He had two spare Fryolators — valued at $1,600 total — collecting dust in a warehouse, and he wanted to know whether Jay’s Sandbar needed them.
“He called me up and thanked for 90 minutes,” Sherman says. “When COVID came along and shut down restaurants, I was at my wit’s end. So I could relate to someone who put all their chips on No. 7 and then No. 7 isn’t even there. The fact he got up and hustled shows you all the ambition he’s got.”
Without the donated kitchen equipment and boat motors, Lycke wouldn’t have recovered so quickly, if he bounced back at all, he says.
“I feel like I’m married to the Fort Lauderdale water community, and I have a thousand husbands and wives,” he says. “If I take the weekend off, they’re upset. I owe it to them to get back out there.”
Jay’s Sandbar Food Boat is scheduled to return to the Fort Lauderdale sandbar at 10 a.m. Jan. 21. Call 954-305-3338 or visit JaysSandbarFoodBoat.com.