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Regulars turn out for Seaside Grill’s 25th anniversary

Photo: A surprise 25th anniversary party for Seaside Grill.

On a sun-splashed, postcard-perfect Friday afternoon at the east end of Jaycee Park, a festive crowd gathered to reminisce and share stories as the Seaside Grill celebrated its 25th anniversary.

"They're all regulars," said Rose Culumber, who, along with her husband, Dan, co-owns the popular, oceanfront eatery that sits on city-owned property. "These people have been coming here for years.

"It's like 'Cheers,'" she added, "where everybody knows your name."

Among those who attended last week's surprise party – the Culumbers had returned from a 10-day vacation in Ireland two nights earlier – was Vero Beach Mayor Laura Moss, who read a proclamation before congratulating the owners, mingling with guests and enjoying a cupcake.

Moss said she had been a Seaside Grill regular, stopping at the casual restaurant during her morning walks, before she embarked on her campaign for the City Council.

"Politics is bad for your health," she quipped. "Now I get here only once a week. I miss it."

Then, in a more serious tone, Moss added: "This is such a charming place. It's a beautiful location and the people are so friendly. That's what I keep hearing from people who've moved to our community recently and have come here.

"And it's not just what they say; it's what they feel," she continued. "You can see it in their eyes when they talk about it. Really, the proclamation didn't capture the romance of the place. This place is special."

The Culumbers' restaurant is a Vero landmark that has played host to wedding breakfasts, birthday parties, graduation celebrations and other special occasions.

Mostly, though, it's where many people, particularly some longtime residents, come for breakfast or lunch – or merely to enjoy a cup of coffee with friends.

"I have people who come here every Sunday, and we have some who eat here five, six and even seven days a week," Dan Culumber said. "Some of them were kids when we first opened.

"We also get a lot of newcomers, people who've either heard about us from friends or they're on the boardwalk and they see us and stop in," he added. "We're always busy during the season, but we do a steady business during the summer, too.

"Every year, business gets better."

Dan Culumber was only 26 years old and working as a manager at Morrison's Cafeteria in the old Vero Mall in 1991, when, with his father's backing, the city accepted his bid to lease the property, former site of the Seaburger Restaurant, which was little more than a shack that served hamburgers, hot dogs and beer.

The terms of the 20-year lease, which came with a 10-year option, required the Culumbers to pay the city $300 per month plus 12 percent of restaurant's profits through the first five years. The monthly rent then would increase to $600, with the percentage remaining the same.

"The rent hasn't changed in 20 years," Dan Culumber said.

But the place has: Before opening for business in 1992, the Culumbers spent $300,000 to renovate the building, which now offers diners a pleasant, comfortable setting.

"The place was a dive," Dan Culumber said. "We had to completely rebuild the interior."

The restaurant was a family business from the start, with the Culumbers running it and Dan's parents helping out. To this day, his father, Rudy, serves as a part-time maintenance man, and his mother, Mary, helps out when needed.

The Grill's hours of operation were altered as the family grew, changing when the Culumbers' two sons, Nick and Daniel, were born. Originally open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., closing time moved to 8 p.m. in 1993, then to 5 p.m. in 1995.

"We didn't get a lot of business from 3 to 5 in the afternoon," Dan Culumber said, "so we finally decided to serve just breakfast and lunch, and close at 2:30."

That was in 1998, and the hours haven't changed since. From 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., seven days per week, the restaurant is open. And, usually, you'll find the Culumbers – one or both – there.

Dan Culumber said the couple's recent trip to Ireland was his first extended time away from the restaurant since it was closed for a total of nine days because of the 2004 hurricanes.

"I was 27 when we opened and, when we started, I didn't say, 'I'm going to do this for 30 years,' but the past 25 years went quick," Dan Culumber said. "That's what happens when you work seven days a week. And, during the season, I sometimes work 12 or 13 hours a day.

"It's been tough on Rose, at times, because I put so much time into the place," he added. "My two boys will never go into this business. They tell me, 'You work too hard.'  But I always wanted to work for myself, not for someone else."

The Culumbers have five years left on their 10-year option, and they say it's too soon to discuss whether they'll seek to extend it. They know the rent would increase – probably a significant amount – and they'd almost certainly need to fend off other bidders.

Dan Culumber said he continues to receive offers from people interested in buying his business, but he has no plans to sell and expects to work at least until his lease expires.

"I don't know where we'll be in five years, but my goal has always been to pay off my house, put the boys through college and have enough money for Rose and I to retire comfortably," he said. "We're getting close."

Nick Culumber graduated from West Virginia University, and his younger brother, Daniel, will be a senior at Boston College this fall. Dan Culumber said his barrier island home will be paid off next year.

"I don't mind working hard," Dan Culumber said, "but I'm not working until I'm 70."

By then, he hopes, he'll be retired, able to fully appreciate his workplace’s picturesque setting – something he admits taking for granted.

"I don't appreciate the beach enough," Dan Culumber said. "Honestly, I can't remember the last time I went in the ocean. But this is a wonderful location. The beach, the boardwalk, the breeze. ... Just look at the view.

"It is special," he added. "I'm sure I'll appreciate it more when I'm not working anymore. We can come here and just enjoy ourselves."
Just like the regulars.