By Tori Phelps | Photography by Romona Robbins
Hurricane Michael is just a vague memory for much of the country, but many Florida Panhandle residents are still trying to regain a sense of normalcy following last October’s devastating storm. For Dave Trepanier, owner of Firefly in Panama City Beach, “normal” means welcoming locals and tourists to his popular restaurant—a routine he recently resumed six months after the hurricane hit.
The much-missed eatery underwent an almost total renovation during its hiatus, thanks to a roof that peeled back at the rear of the building. Ferocious winds and ankle-deep water destroyed the entire kitchen, with the dining room, bar, and lounge not faring much better. That damage is undetectable now, replaced by an upgraded kitchen, new roof, ceilings, and walls, along with a few other touches Trepanier encourages patrons to come see for themselves.
While much has changed with the restaurant, the most important element has not: the Firefly people. Chef Derek Langford and his staff are still manning the kitchen, Trepanier reports, and many front-of-the-house employees have returned as well. “I’m very grateful,” he says of their commitment. “They’re a great team.”
He’s always known that the Firefly crew was special, but that confidence was reinforced in October when the staff, including Chef Derek and the general manager, Danielle Mills, immediately shifted into clean-up mode to begin the process of putting Firefly back together. Construction crews, too, have been working diligently, although Mother Nature did her best to delay things. Most notably, the roof repairs—key to the rest of the rehab—got stuck at the “dry in” phase for about a month, forcing them to restart the process every time it rained.
As it turned out, though, the roof wasn’t Trepanier’s biggest challenge. He’s had to fight with his insurance company from the beginning—so far to no avail—to get his full settlement. “I’ve depleted my savings and had to borrow money just to keep the contractors working,” he says. “It took almost four months to get a quarter of what I’m owed. I’m still waiting on the rest. If I didn’t have the wherewithal to find the funds, I would be four to six months away from opening.”
“The community support has been unbelievable; it’s incredibly flattering,” he says, adding that he most appreciates the concern people have shown for his staff. “The fact is, we miss them as much as they miss us. I can’t go anywhere without someone asking me, ‘When are you opening?’”
A further delay would not only be devastating for Trepanier, but for Firefly’s dedicated fans, who’ve gone without their favorite dishes since last fall. And, yes, he promises, all of those favorites will be back on the menu, along with seasonal fare.
While many restaurateurs would be nervous that their clientele had moved on after six months, Trepanier has built genuine relationships with customers, who’ve offered nonstop encouragement during the rebuilding process. When he posted an update to Firefly’s Facebook page indicating an imminent reopening, he was flooded with responses from patrons who shared happy Firefly memories and promised to return as soon as the doors were unlocked. “The community support has been unbelievable; it’s incredibly flattering,” he says, adding that he most appreciates the concern people have shown for his staff. “The fact is, we miss them as much as they miss us. I can’t go anywhere without someone asking me, ‘When are you opening?’”
Though thrilled with the amount of time he’s been able to spend with his family over the past six months, Trepanier has also been itching for that all-important normalcy. He was so anxious to return to his routine, in fact, that he didn’t plan a formal reopening for the restaurant. “I just want to get back to work,” he says.
Welcome back, Firefly!
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Tori Phelps has been a writer and editor for nearly twenty years. A publishing industry veteran and longtime VIE collaborator, Phelps lives with three kids, two cats, and one husband in Charleston, South Carolina.