The bright green fronds of an inflatable plastic palm tree wave merrily beside the L’il Beach Hut, sitting next to the south wall of the Home Laundromat. After ordering at the window, patrons can stroll to an outdoor picnic area down a walkway of wacky beach flotsam and jetsam donated by customers and friends.
Mark and Laurie Jones’ new eatery has been open since early September. Three years ago, the Jones’ were looking for a peninsula business venture, and purchased the two acres included with the laundromat and Home water system. Originally, their idea was to expand the laundry facility or convert the building to another commercial use. The new owners were encouraged by residents not to remove the service business, in operation since 1968. The Jones set about improving the existing facility, while not giving up on their idea of creating something new at the site.
During renovation, they brainstormed several ideas. “We are community-oriented,” Mark said. “We wanted some kind of business local people would use and enjoy; one that could offer part-time jobs to kids. We also wanted something to complement, not compete, with our business neighbors.”
During an 18-month permit process with the state Labor & Industries and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, the Jones’ found officials from both jurisdictions to be patient and helpful. “Their requirements are tough, but attainable,” said the owner. “We had to put an employee bathroom in the building; our other utilities were just fine.”
Wanting to focus on the quality of their menu, they opted to begin with a “rolling kitchen,” as Jones calls it. The 1993 mobile food service van was located, purchased and driven up from Texas. Under the watchful eye of regulators, they retrofitted the vehicle to meet stringent food service and safety regulations. “Our licenses and permits equal those of a full-fledged restaurant,” Jones said. “We could provide food service for other venues, but that’s not in our plans.”
The van sat quiet and closed next to the laundromat while the permitting process continued, causing speculation among local residents. Espresso stand? Ice cream? Nancy Lind, president of the Home Social Club, remembers that at their annual meeting in June concerns surfaced among residents regarding potential commercial development in the area. Of primary interest was a site affecting A Street. Claude Gahard, Home resident and member of the Key Peninsula Planning Board, recalls members had no concerns about the Jones’ venture, as the site was already commercially zoned.
From the beginning, the Jones’ received practical support for their venture from area restaurants, one of which helped acquaint them with their fickle ice cream machine. “With two state parks down the road, and Herron Island ferry traffic turning in, we’ve had a good start,” Laurie said. “We’ve tweaked the menu a bit; and we’re seeing repeat business already.” Mark added that being open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day helps increase traffic, along with positive word-of-mouth advertising.
“We wanted to see how our rolling kitchen idea did before considering diving into construction,” Mark said. “We knew the public would let us know if they wanted us here. We’re pleased with local response.” As the business grows, they want to include a canopied winter-picnic area, and more picnic tables so patrons can look out over the water as they dine.
Currently, six teens work after school at the Hut and are trained by the Jones’ son, Patrick, who manages the business. They hope to increase their employees to 12 in time. Hungry commuters can call in orders while miles away. Knowing their Bongo Double Bacon Burger sizzles on the grill and someone is watching for their car to turn in could perk up any tired driver. No roller skates at the Hut though — it’s got a sand-in-your-shoes beach out front, surfing music on the radio and enough donated water skis to build a picket fence.
“Hey,” Mark said, “life’s a beach.”
It must be true. It says so right on the front of the official L’il Beach Hut T-shirt.