By Laura Myers
Restaurateur Doug Prew credits his loyal staff at Key Largo's The Fish House and The Fish House Encore with his success. So much so, in fact, that he pays his dedicated crew a four-week salary for annual three-week vacations in September.
"Our crew, a group of really friendly caring people, works together like family," Prew said. "Their goal is to make the customer feel like part of the family."
Serving up generous portions of the freshest fish also drives the success of the two restaurants that are known for traditional Key Largo dining.
"Fresh, fresh fish is the key. We buy all of the fish whole," said Prew, who has owned The Fish House with partner C.J. Berwick for nearly 30 years. "The Fish House is a Keys-y place, while The Encore is more of a dining experience."
In the late 1980s, Prew was seeking a change from his life as a construction company owner in Stuart, Florida. Burned out from a strenuous career, he sold the company.
Prew's father had died of lung cancer, his brother owned a seafood market in Tavernier and his mother, ill with Parkinson's disease, wanted to spend time with her grandchildren in Tavernier.
"I decided to head to the Keys for a break," Prew recalled.
In 1987 he bought The Fish House, then a sandwich shop, from an airline pilot and charterboat captain who had opened it five years earlier to serve tasty fresh grouper sandwiches.
"The late 1980s were the tail end of the Wild West here in the Keys," Prew said. "We used to play touch football on U.S. 1. We could play half a game of football before seeing a car. And no one was here in May or September."
Patrons often waited up to two hours at The Fish House to savor specialties such as Matacumbe-style fish topped with vinaigrette of tomatoes, onions, capers and basil, or pan-sautéed delicacies.
Prew opened The Encore, on the site of a former gift shop, as a different dining venue in 1993. With two full-service bars and a piano lounge, it serves steaks and sushi as well as fish.
Daily catches — 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of fresh fish each week — are brought to the back door of The Fish House by local fishermen, then filleted and prepared at the restaurant. Fish is also smoked onsite.
Prew's restaurants are well-frequented by Upper Keys residents and Miamians, many purchasing homes in Key Largo and commuting for work, and international television exposure has lured in clientele from all over the world.
In March, the Food Network's Chef Guy Fieri featured Prew on the show, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." The network also highlighted The Fish House Restaurant & Seafood Market on a show hosted by Chef Bobby Flay in 2003.
Six years ago Prew helped launch the Florida Keys menu trend of serving lightly breaded lionfish, flavored with olive oil and dusted with salt and pepper. The taste, he says, is similar to that of yellowtail snapper.
Many environmental organizations encourage the removal and consumption of the invasive lionfish, whose rapidly growing populations in Atlantic waters steal both space and food resources from domestic species like grouper and snapper.
"We tried it and it took off like a rocket," Prew said. "Now we can't get a steady supply. Hopefully we'll do ourselves out of the market."
Prew also pioneered twice-annual "dining in the dark" culinary experiences that treat 20 to 30 patrons at The Encore with four or five light courses. The events are wildly popular and sell out quickly.
"Everyone comes in and they put on a sleep mask. Every course is paired with wine that's found at the end of your knife, and you eat with your fingers," Prew explained. "It's a great experience of taste, touch and smell — people have an absolute ball."
Each week Prew's venues sell 400 award-winning traditional Key lime pies, baked fresh daily.
New on his menus are lighter portions, favored by retirees who don't want to eat or spend a lot. Craft beers and signature infused martinis are another growing trend.
"We'll do flights, with three or four, of scotches, rums and wines," Prew said.
The 67-year-old Prew is father to 12-year-old twins and his wife Narelle hails from Australia. The family enjoys traveling, boating and family life filled with activities that center around middle-school pursuits. The kids often bus tables when they need extra spending money.
Firmly entrenched in Key Largo, Prew first began coming to the Keys during the 1950s, when his father was a commercial spearfisherman. Today much of his success can be attributed to his kind, modest personality and a generous, loyal nature.
"My people make it happen, from the dishwasher to me," said Prew. "I'm the conductor — I have ideas, but it's their hard work and dedication that makes it happen."
"We share," he added. "When we earn extra money, we share it."
Prew, known for his kind, modest personality and a generous, loyal nature, first began coming to the Keys during the 1950s, when his father was a commercial spear fisherman. Today he is firmly entrenched in Key Largo. Images: Bob Care
Prew takes pride in his staff, and looks on as the chef expertly prepares a marsala sauce.
Prew has owned The Fish House with partner C.J. Berwick for nearly 30 years.
Serving up generous portions of the freshest fish also drives the restaurants' success.
Prew's restaurants are well-frequented by Upper Keys residents and Miamians, and international television exposure has lured in clientele from all over the world.