Talking with Ben Porter about The Pier Cantina and Sandbar
1. Tell us about The Pier Cantina
We’re a Mexican cantina by day and an amazing live music venue by night. We’re oceanfront with spectacular views from multiple levels and from our outdoors seating area on the boardwalk. Our upstairs features a large dining area while downstairs we have a large bar and stage. We also feature a large parking lot with free customer parking, which is a huge advantage for us.
2. What sort of food do you serve?
We have a lot of traditional Mexican dishes along with margaritas, mojitos and Mexican draft beers. On the food side our focus is on our 13 different a la carte specialty tacos. Our tacos are really great for the person coming off the beach who wants a quick break and something light to eat before getting back to what they were doing. If you’re really hungry, our West Coast burrito with skirt steak, fries, shredded cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream is the way to go.
3. Is your audience beach goers?
They’re definitely part of our audience, but we cover so much more than that. There are two different seasons at the Beach. In the summer, we focus on beach goers as soon as we open. As people start to leave the Beach around 4pm there’s a switch to more of a dinner crowd. Then, after dinner we get a late night crowd that comes for the music and the beach-feel atmosphere of the bar and the open air next to the ocean. It’s just a fun atmosphere to hang out in. We’re a big venue, but in the summer, if you’re coming at night and you aren’t there by 10:30 then there’s a good chance we’ll have a line up to get in.
4. What would you recommend for a first time visitor who wants to understand what your tacos are all about?
The first thing we do is to start everyone with our complimentary chips and salsa. We make our salsa in-house with 10 ingredients. It’s not your typical salsa. We put a lot of care into it and then we give it away. From there, the tacos are all about the options. We recommend that you just start with what you like, because there is something truly for everyone.
5. Which tacos are the most popular?
Our Surf ’n Turf Taco is hugely popular. It’s got steak and shrimp and sriracha ranch. It’s probably our number one most popular taco. The Mahi Taco is also right up there in terms of popularity.
A taco that’s a little more unusual is our Sunny Side Up Taco. It’s made with chorizo sausage and an egg on top. It’s one with a different flair to it.
We have a lot of different tacos to choose from and we’re always trying out new things.
6. What’s your favorite taco?
It’s got to be the Sunny Side Up. I don’t know why. I just love chorizo and eggs and they fit really well together.
7. Are there any tacos that have surprised you by their popularity?
Yes, the Surf ’n Turf. It’s over $5 for a taco. People are price sensitive at the Beach and to have our highest priced taco be instantly number one was a real shock to me. And it’s stayed number one ever since we introduced it.
8. Are there hidden gems that don’t get ordered as much but really ought to be?
I’d say the Pastor Taco. It’s a great taco made with marinated pork (in pineapple juice), cilantro, and diced onions. It must be the name that throws people off.
9. Can you tell us about your music?
This is the engine that makes us go. A beach bar cannot be complete without live music. That is how I view it. It makes our atmosphere what it is today.
10. How do you select the artists who play at The Pier Cantina?
That is definitely a tough one. Not only do we try to pick the best, but also the artists who fit with the crowd that we naturally attract. Guys and bands like Charlie Walker, Ryan Campbell, Split Tone, Be Easy, and Barrett Jockers really understand what beach life is all about.
11. Sunday’s your most popular day?
Yes. We’re jammed from 3pm onwards. Plan on waiting in line in the parking lot if you try to arrive after 5pm.
12. Why do you think Sunday is so popular?
There isn’t a venue in town that brings the whole “Sunday Funday” thing together like we do. Huge open-air bar, great live music, and the best “people watching” spot in town. What’s not to like about canned beer, bikinis, and flop-flops? We encourage come-as-you-are, so it’s really casual. Split Tone really play to that audience. They’re an independent band with a lot of their own songs, along with some great covers. They’re a reggae style band that just fits the beach vibe. They’ve been around for quite a while and have a huge local following. I love those guys.
13. Do you start music at 5pm every day?
No. During the summer we have daytime music that can start at 3 or 4pm and runs right up to dinner at 6pm. We let people enjoy a quieter dinner and then start the music again at 10:30 pm. On Sunday in the summer music can go all day, starting as early at 2pm.
14. What’s the best way to find out who’s playing?
Facebook is the best way. It’s the easiest for us to keep updated.
15. Can you tell us about your background? Are you a chef?
No, I’m not a chef. I got into restaurants about 9 years ago. I’m originally from Charlotte, NC. A family friend of ours owned a local sandwich shop. I was in banking at the time and started talking to my friend about franchising his sandwich shop. I really wanted to get into the business, so I opened a sandwich shop in Charlotte. I was 27 at the time. That’s where I started.
16. How did you go from there to The Pier Cantina?
I had lived in Jacksonville Beach from about 1999 to 2004 when I was in the Coast Guard so I had ties to Jacksonville from that time. One of my friends was in commercial real estate. The Pier had been an office. When it came open my friend thought it would make a great restaurant so he called me up to tell me about it. I came down to take a look and was sold as soon as I saw it.
17. So why didn’t you bring your sandwich ideas from Charlotte to The Pier?
My sandwich shops were based on Northeast style subs and pitas. So the thought of a chick in a bikini eating a 12 inch cheesesteak in 95 degree weather didn’t really do it for me.
18. What appealed to you about moving from banking to the restaurant business?
I like the idea of being my own boss and being able to make a bigger life for myself. In banking there’s ultimately a cap I’d get to. There’s none of that with my own place. I have a lot more control over my own destiny now.
19. Did you have any big surprises when you got going?
Yes, we all did. A lot of them! I was from a bigger city, not a beach town. I was familiar with a lot of beach towns, but never got the year-round experience in one. When I got here I realized that Jax Beach is not Charlotte and it’s not like Charleston or many other beach towns. That was the first surprise. It’s a completely different market down here and I had to adjust right away, on the fly. I hope that one day, it can become a year-round destination.
20. What’s the biggest difference between Jacksonville Beach and, say, Charlotte?
The biggest thing is that in Jax Beach you have 8 solid months of business to be successful. If you can’t make it work in 8 months, then forget about it. I don’t really understand why it’s like that. We still have a lot of residents here - nearly a million people in Jacksonville. To this day I haven’t put my finger on exactly why things slow down so much at the end of the summer season. I do hope that the business and city can keep working together to find a solution for the winter months.
21. There’s been a very high percentage of turnover for restaurants at the Beach. Why do you think that is?
It really does come back to that 8 month summer season again. The drop of traditional restaurant business in November is enormous. The variation in business volume is very challenging from a staffing perspective. We have to hire almost a whole new staff every March. That requires new training and a lot of work to ensure we can keep consistent service levels that people come to expect. At The Pier we’ve worked hard to fill the 4 months with different things. We hold a lot of holiday corporate events. I believe that we did nearly 25 this December alone. Our 9,200 sq. ft. allow us to host big lunches and dinners for over 100 people at a time. We even do 6-7 weddings a year. Our upstairs dining room is the best event space in the city in my eyes. And everyone else is starting to realize that as well.
The other thing - if you look at all the places that have lasted at the Beach, they all have large parking lots. That’s key. Being able to control our own parking lot and letting our customers park for free is a huge advantage. That puts us on the same playing field as restaurants in other parts of the city.
For us the nightlife is another thing that helps us a lot. Even when the beach goers drop off the nighttime crowd stays constant, whether it’s July or January. We keep the music going all year.
22. Are there things the City could do to make it easier for restaurants?
Absolutely! The parking situation has to be the biggest issue. It needs to be updated for restaurants to have a chance of survival. It has to operate with the demands of the day. When the beaches are packed from 11am – 4pm, the city needs to be out there charging. But when the beach crowd starts to leave at 4pm, that’s where free parking needs to kick in. It pains me to see empty restaurants on a Saturday night in the summer at 7:00, especially when city lots are 40% full with a parking attendant charging $5. Let us create the demand first, then look to bring it back all day. I would also have paid parking come back at 10:00pm as well, because once again, the demand is there. We just need to tweek the 4pm – 10pm time slot in my opinion.
23. There have been a number of attempts to bring upscale dining to the Beach - restaurants like Sakana, for example. Do you think we’ll see higher end dining at the Beach?
I don’t think so, not anytime soon. Sakana was probably the best restaurant to open at the beaches since I got here 4 years ago. But Jax Beach is a place for flip-flops, shorts, beach cruisers and the occasional party. It’s hard to go somewhere and order a $30 steak while sitting next to people in flip-flops having a $2 PBR. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen or that it even needs to happen. Jax Beach should be about building on the amazingly fun atmosphere that we have now.
24. What’s next for The Pier Cantina?
We’ve got some big things going on. Over the last 2 years we’ve made some huge improvements to the building, like the massive bar and the roll up doors on the main floor facing the ocean. This year we're renovating the upstairs dining area to make it open air. All the windows are coming out and roll up glass windows are going in. It’ll be ready by March 1st . When people come to the Beach they want to enjoy the ocean - they want to see it, smell it, hear it and just take it all in. Being open air will really show off that experience.
25. Anything else?
I just want the businesses and city to continue to work together to build for the future. I am surrounded by some of the best owner/operators in the city with regards to the businesses currently in downtown Jax Beach. So give us all a chance this upcoming summer, because it is going to be a fun ride!