Bodega Blue’s future in doubt after death of owner in Bahamas
STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of January 5, 2012)
Photo of Peter Beringer, Below: Beringer with Zandra Simm.
A Christmas break tragedy in the Bahamas has prompted the closing of a popular Vero Beach night spot.
The body of 52-year-old Peter Beringer, who in late summer bought the downtown café, Bodega Blue, and re-opened it in mid-October with his girlfriend, Zandra Simm, was found by Simm on Dec. 28 on the beach behind his family’s vacation home on exclusive Windermere Island, off Eleuthera.
Autopsy results are expected this week.
Simm said she made the discovery shortly after 7 a.m., just as the sun rose over the ocean of Beringer’s “favorite place in the world.” She said his body was cold and lying face down in the sand. Valium pills and liquor bottles were found on the sand nearby, she said.
It was the second night of Simm’s stay there. She was visiting along with her daughters, ages 16 and 20. Beringer had arrived before her on Christmas Eve.
Beringer was the son of the late Stuart Marshall Beringer of Rye, N.Y., a founding partner and chairman of TM Capital, the investment banking firm. He died in 2004.
The 5-mile long island, connected to Eleuthera by a small bridge and a guardhouse, has been visited for many years by British royals. It was the setting for a famous photograph of a pregnant Princess Diana on the beach; singer Mariah Carey was married at her home there in 2008. Other residents have included the family of Lyndon B. Johnson as well as Jacques Cousteau, who called the pink-sand beach there one of the two most beautiful beaches in the world.
Peter Beringer had gone to visit his 84-year-old mother, Alice Beringer, as he does every year at Christmas. “He was her baby,” said Daryn Beringer, the wife of Peter’s older brother Stuart. “She adored Peter to the end of the day. This is devastating.”
Simm said Bahamian authorities questioned her at some length. “I had to sit with different agencies and give my story,” said Simm, who adds “there was never any suspect (sic) of me.” She said police also took statements from her daughters as well as Alice Beringer.
Beringer's body remained on the beach for six hours, Simm said, while Bahamian authorities tried in vain to find a coroner during the holiday week. Eventually a release was faxed to the family and the body was flown to Nassau.
Results of an autopsy, required by Bahamian law of all deaths deemed “accidental,” are expected this week, according to family members.
“There was a thorough investigation which we have not seen,” said Daryn Beringer.
Family members say they expect the body to be cremated in the Bahamas, with Beringer’s ashes scattered over the island chain he loved.
“He spent a great deal of time there,” said Daryn Beringer. “He was a loving, generous, giving person. He had a wonderful sense of humor. If you could see the outpouring of the people of Eleuthera – he was very well loved.”
Meanwhile, in Vero, Beringer’s brother Stuart acted quickly to have locks changed on the restaurant, which had been closed for Christmas break but which Simm expected to re-open Jan. 4.
Realtor Billy Moss has been enlisted to sell the business, though Simm hired an attorney to try to prove Beringer intended to “gift” her a portion of the asset. She says her name is not on the lease.
“The business is closed and it is up for sale,” said Daryn Beringer. “Peter has a will that was written in 2003. There is no question about who the beneficiaries are.”
Peter Beringer has two teenage children in Norway with his first wife, a Norwegian national. A second marriage also ended in divorce, Simm said. She met Beringer on an on-line dating site 18 months ago.
“We joked about him wanting to live an easy-going, stress-free life,” said Simm. “He was doing something he didn’t want to do – he just wanted to travel and take it easy. But I told him I wanted to earn something and build something and create something for my daughters. He didn’t have to work, but I’m a go-getter. I’ve worked multiple jobs.”
Two years ago, Simm started another enterprise, a seafood shop called She Sells, He Shells. She said that venture ended badly in a dispute with her partner and she “lost” her investment.
She and Beringer looked at several business opportunities before settling on Bodega Blue. The café was opened in 2004 as an artisanal cheese shop by Lynne Persinger, who retired from a career as a food and beverage executive, and her husband Jeff McKinney, executive chef at Orchid Island.
Persinger eventually developed the shop into the micro-brew beer and wine bar that drew blues musicians from around the Southeast, along with a devoted following of listeners.
Beringer, who Simm said lived off disbursements from a trust fund, paid $60,000 for the business, and spent another $40,000 in the two months since it re-opened under his ownership. “He was getting nervous about putting more money into it. His greatest fear was that the business wasn’t making enough money.”
She said the restaurant’s future was the subject of much discussion on his last day. “I thought he didn’t need to be around the business as much. He hadn’t ever been in this business before and the plan was always for me to run it.”
Peter Beringer kept a rental apartment. Simm lives on the south barrier island with her daughters.
Simm, a native of Hollywood, Fla., and a former interior designer, said she had done work for a client in Vero Beach and “loved it.” She moved north from Coconut Grove after her marriage to her daughters’ father failed.
On her arrival, Simm befriended now-City Council member Tracy Carroll, and was invited to decorate a room of the Carroll home in Riomar as a benefit for the local Rotary Club.
Peter Beringer had gone to visit his mother as he does every year at Christmas.
Simm said there were pills beside Beringer’s body, as well as two “bottles of booze stuck in the sand.”
Although Daryn Beringer speculated the death could have been by heart attack, Simm says another incident had occurred at the beach house in June involving Valium.
Beringer was not hospitalized at the time but sought psychiatric care when they returned to Vero, Simm says.
She said Beringer, whom family members say quit drinking more than 15 years ago, had taken an apparent excess of prescription anti-anxiety medication earlier in the evening prior to his death and was slurring his speech at a party they were attending on Windermere.
According to Simm, an argument ensued, and Simm walked the half-mile back to Beringer’s mother’s home. Beringer had already arrived via a shorter route and had changed out of his dinner clothes into a bathing suit.
Simm said she refused to talk further with Beringer and went to her bedroom for the night at around 8:45 p.m. “He stomped off to the kitchen, and I was asleep by 9,” she said.
Her daughters returned at 10:30 p.m. with Beringer’s mother. Since Beringer had left his car at the party, they assumed he was still gone, Simm said.
She said calls were attempted from his cell phone around 10 p.m.
Simm said it was only after she awoke just after 7 a.m., that she realized Beringer had not come to bed. After checking the guest room, she stepped outside to see if he was watching the sunrise.
Down the slope of the dune, she said saw him lying in the sand. She returned to the house to get her daughters and Beringer’s mother and together they went back to the body, turning it face up. Her daughter called police, Simm said.
Simm has hired an attorney to pursue claims that Beringer had recently verbally “gifted” her 10 percent of the restaurant and intended to “gift” her 50 percent at her upcoming 50th birthday in May. “He said he bought the business for me, but it wasn’t put in writing.”
She said part of most of Bodega Blue’s purchase price was for “goodwill,” and that the “goodwill” will dwindle if the restaurant doesn’t reopen.
“I really don’t want to interrupt the business because Bodega’s doing great and we’re really on a roll and we’re doing the right things. I’m confident that my daughters and I can continue on,” she said.
“That’s all he ever wanted,” she said of Beringer. “A place where people can be happy enjoying themselves.”