When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) became chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship earlier this month, he sought to honor Florida’s small businesses.
A fine place to start was Indian Pass and the historic Raw Bar.
Rubio set out to toss a spotlight on one Florida small business each week, honoring the ingenuity, hard work and entrepreneurship of small business owners around the state, he said.
“Small businesses are the fiber of our communities,” Rubio said during a stop in Gulf County last week. “They are the (engine) for helping rebuild a committee.
“I wanted to show the history behind the business, the challenges you face.”
And the first business Rubio recognized was the Indian Pass Raw, honored as the initial Senate Small Business of the Week.
Rubio recorded a salutatory video and took to the Senate floor to read into the record a brief history of the Raw Bar and its role in a community recently decimated by Hurricane Michael.
“It’s a great honor to have that designation,” said Jimmy McNeil, Jr., whose family has operated the Raw Bar, in its various forms, for some nine decades. “Now it is forever in the (Congressional) record.
“But when I promote anything, I promote all of Gulf County. Everybody has had a role in our success. Gulf County is such a special place. It’s just a different attitude all the way around. Everybody needs to know that.”
That promoting was just part of the conversation as Rubio spent a few lunchtime minutes at the Raw Bar restaurant in downtown Port St. Joe.
McNeil and co-owner Ralph Roberson said they hope to the have the Indian Pass restaurant back open this spring after it was among structures severely damaged by Michael.
And McNeil, between photos, Rubio meeting the restaurants staff and enjoying a fresh oyster on the shell, steered the conservation to several Gulf County issues.
He discussed the growing oyster aquaculture industry in the Indian Pass Lagoon where a 10-acre site is permitted for growing oysters.
“It’s an interesting process and it’s the future,” Roberson said.
There was also talk about the need for more water flowing from the north on the Apalachicola River and the ongoing legal battles with Georgia and Alabama.
Rubio noted that Alabama has fallen on the same side of the argument as Florida, adding there was a need for adjudication of the dispute which has “No natural solution,” Rubio said.
In Rubio’s remarks on the Senate floor, he detailed the history of the Raw Bar, starting as a commissary store founded in 1903 for workers in the thriving turpentine industry.
The site became the Indian Pass Trading Post in 1929, offering Gypsy McNeil’s seafood gumbo.
After Hurricane Kate destroyed the business in 1986, the McNeil family rebuilt and re-opened as an oyster bar.
Rubio noted the restaurant’s unique qualities, the fresh seafood, the honor system for beverages and the high praise from publications as varied as Southern Living and the New York Times.
And Michael did its job in October.
“Upon reopening they will welcome visitors to the Gulf Coast of Florida for their 90th year in business,” Rubio’s remarks continued.
After the oyster on the shell and final photos, Rubio, who playfully wondered why CNN was showing on the restaurant TV when he walked in, was off.
On his way to Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base, Rubio said he wanted to make a point of personally stopping and providing the embossed honor, including remarks to the Congressional record, to McNeil.
He pledged to return when the Indian Pass Raw Bar was open and to get a look at the oyster farming operation of which McNeil expressed such pride.
The final sentence of Rubio’s remarks summed up the honor and the visit.
“This whole area, the whole Gulf, we’ve done this before. We’re resilient,” said Meredith McNeil in October 2018, days after the storm.