DELEON SPRINGS — Syrup and sentiments both flowed freely on Tuesday at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill, the iconic “make your own pancakes” restaurant that has been a fixture for more than six decades at DeLeon Springs State Park.
Multitudes of diners descended on the restaurant the morning after news was posted on Facebook that the beloved family-owned eatery’s contract hadn’t been renewed by the state.
“While it is unfortunate, the state has decided not to renew our contract and move forward with another concession in the DeLeon Springs State Park,” the post stated. “We have been blessed to serve as a Central Florida staple since 1961.”
On Tuesday, John Michaelos, managing partner for family-owned Schwarze Enterprises, confirmed that the company had been outbid by another vendor, Guest Services Inc., for a contract with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to operate the restaurant as well as provide other services at the state park that include kayak rentals and the gift shop.
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“We simply were outbid by somebody, it’s as simple as that,” said Michaelos, in a short cash-register break from taking nonstop orders for a line of customers that necessitated a four-hour wait for a table.
The existing Sugar Mill will host its final diners on Sept. 11, with the new operators slated to re-open it on Oct. 1, he said. He added that he was unclear whether the new concessionaire would keep the popular “make your own pancake” concept or do something different.
Reaction 'has been overwhelming'
In the meantime, the outpouring of emotions from customers “has been overwhelming,” Michaelos said. “It’s mind-blowing. This restaurant strikes a chord with so many people. It’s been here for six decades and it’s just a special place.”
Although summer crowds for the restaurant are typically strong, the throng that arrived on Tuesday was heavier than usual, Michaelos said. It was an influx he attributed to the Facebook announcement.
“Normally, it starts to wind down a little bit by this time of year,” he said. “But I really expect that we’ll be crazy busy from this point on until we close. I anticipate there will be very long waits.”
On Tuesday, diners ranged from longtime regulars to visiting tourists who had stopped for the first time.
“We come here all the time,” said Adam Jaquish, 37, of Holly Hill.
Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Brielle, 4, Jaquish was continuing a family tradition that has spanned generations, he said.
“I came here with my parents when I was a kid, and now I bring my daughter,” said Jaquish, as he prepared to add chocolate chips to pancake batter on the tabletop griddle. “It’s just one of those really neat things to do. There’s really nothing else like it.”
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Nearby, Curtis Wyers, 48, also was preparing to chow-down on pancakes and bacon with his wife, Leslie, twin sons, Drew and Logan, both 19, and daughter Kylie, 16. The family was visiting DeLand from Columbus, New Jersey, to help Drew settle into classes at Stetson University.
“This is amazing,” he said of the Sugar Mill. “The atmosphere, the history behind it. I’m glad we get a chance to see it before it’s closing up.”
'Make your own pancakes' concept could endure
Although there has been no official announcement about what the new concessionaire plans to do with the restaurant, an email from the DeLeon Springs Community Association Inc. offered hope that the concept would be maintained by the new operator.
“Unfortunately, the current business owners will no longer have the lease there, but the restaurant will continue on, after what we hope is a brief close, under different management,” the organization stated.
The email further stated that FDEP would be closing the building on Sept. 12 to make needed roof repairs and interior renovations on the century-old replica of an 1830s sugar mill before the new concessionaire reopens it.
“They plan to provide the same type of food and iconic experience, in the same historic building and location,” the email stated.
Reached by phone, Amy Munizzi, the community association’s president, said that the email was based on information she received from the DeLeon Springs State Park Manager Rene Acuna.
The expectation is that the new vendor will continue the restaurant's existing theme, including the "make your own pancakes" experience, said Alexandra Kuchta, FDEP spokeswoman.
"Guest Services, Inc. will continue all the services and experiences that have made the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House such a treasured part of a visit to De Leon Springs State Park," Kuchta said in an email. "The restaurant’s famous cook-your-own pancakes will still be available in the authentic, sugar mill building overlooking one of Florida’s most beautiful natural settings."
Munizzi praised the Sugar Mill for its significant impact on the area’s economy and tourism.
“People come from all over the world to go there because it’s such a unique experience,” she said, “to make your own pancakes on the griddle, with the wonderful offerings they have, the chocolate chips and things. It’s a tremendous economic driver for us and a tourist draw.
“Our hope, and we believe, that the new concessionaire will continue with that,” she said. “Hopefully, they will understand how unique and revered this place is.”
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Old Spanish Sugar Mill eatery to close at DeLeon Springs State Park