Sanibel’s cool gulf breezes lured him from a life of danger. Its dark undercurrents threatened to destroy him.  After ten years of living life on the edge, it was hard for Doc Ford to get that addiction to danger out of his system. But spending each day watching the sun melt into Dinkins Bay and the moon rise over the mangrove trees, cooking dinner for his beautiful neighbor, and dispensing advice to the locals over a cold beer lulled him into letting his guard down.”

– Doc Ford, Sanibel Flats

Quoting a scene from a novel might seem like an odd way to begin a story about a successful restaurant chain. However, it is from the pages of these novels that the concept for Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill was conceived.  

Doc Ford, the main character in a series of mystery novels, is a National Security Agency (NSA) agent turned marine biologist living on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

For fans of the novels (there are currently 24 of them) who want to go beyond the pages of the books, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grill is the perfect destination.

How did the fictional world of Doc Ford transform into a successful rum bar and grill?

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With a focus on the customer experience, the owners designed the restaurant and menu to evoke the novels’ vibe

I had a chance to ask Brenda Harrity, one of the owners of Doc Ford, where the concept for the restaurant originated.

It was a combination of people, timing, and location.

Brenda, along with Marty Harrity, Mark and Heidi Marinello, and the author of the Doc Ford novels Randy Wayne White were discussing an idea for a new restaurant venture.

They noticed a new trend in celebrity restaurants catching on in South Florida. Being based in Sanibel, Florida – White and Doc Ford were local celebrities themselves.

A location on Rabbit Road, Sanibel Island became available, and they knew it was a good fit for the new concept.

Harrity said, “It was already wharf-like. The interior really reminded us of the fish camp where Doc Ford lives. It really captured the feel. The building and location were perfect.”

The owners wanted to create a complete customer experience based on the Doc Ford novels. It would be casual with a Caribbean vibe. Not only does the design of the restaurant bring you into Doc Ford’s world, the menu jumps straight from the pages of the novels.  

“Doc is a big rum drinker, and in keeping with the theme, we have seven-year Flor de Caña rum – which Doc is particular to,” Harrity added.

When fans of the novels come in, the rum and food are already familiar. The novels inspire the menu items with an emphasis on fresh-made and local.

Doc Ford make their own soups, sauces, chutneys and sources local seafood for the restaurants. The attention to detail adds to the customer experience.

People get attached to the characters in the Doc Ford novels and visiting the restaurant brings the experience to life.

The Doc Ford team capitalized on opportunities to expand into selling books and merchandise

The owners noticed that many of the other celebrity-themed restaurants offered t- shirts, so they did the same.  

As the restaurant on Rabbit Road gained in popularity, customers asked where they could find copies of the Doc Ford novels. The restaurant set up a merchandise area to sell signed copies of the hardcover books.

When a new Doc Ford novel is released, the restaurant has a book signing party with author and co-owner Randy Wayne White. Customers have a chance to meet the author and discuss their favorite characters while sipping rum mojitos.

The original location on Rabbit Road opened in 2003.

Since that time Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille have expanded to include 3 locations with a fourth in the planning stages. With a novel idea, attention to detail, and focus on the customer experience the team at Doc Ford’s has created a unique dining destination.

If you don’t know who Doc Ford is when you enter one of the restaurants…

You will get a taste of the island lifestyle made famous in the novels by the time you leave.

Doc Ford’s Recipe For Success

The owners built a business concept on a popular mystery novel written by a local author. Randy Wayne White’s novels already had a loyal fan base of readers.

Those fans felt a personal connection to the main character and wanted to have a taste of Doc’s world.  

What about you? How can you apply this concept to your own restaurant?

Is there a local celebrity or something popular that you could use to build into your restaurant?

Katie Jones

Posted by Katie Jones

Katie is an innovator, organoleptic guru and food geek with over a decade of experience in the food industry. She loves exploring the sweeter side of life making local bakeries a priority when traveling. If you would like to connect with Katie, visit her at LinkedIn.