After 27 years of memories, smiles, friendships, and countless half-price specials, The Lighthouse Restaurant in Shoreline Village is closing its doors July 31.
"The years just flew by," owner Mary Shackleford said with a tear in her eye. "We had kids and raised a family, our employees had kids, and we just lived our lives."
The Shoreline Village Mall, which is comprised of 10 buildings, was purchased by Shoreline Holdings LLC/Blackwater Management Group LLC in February for $4,370,000, and Lighthouse co-owner Reuben Shackleford said the landmark restaurant was not part of the developer’s plans moving forward.
When the sale first took place, Reuben said a series of meetings were held between tenants and the new owners, and it was said that The Lighthouse would stay put as the entire mall went through a dramatic renovation project.
"Then later, they came to me and said 'we've decided to open this place up' and that you don't fit our image, basically," Reuben told The Log while sitting at one of the restaurant's 250-plus seats. "Now we have to go on with our lives."
Prior to the Shackleford's introduction to the restaurant that would become The Lighthouse, the building at 878 U.S. Hwy. 98 E. was home to two previous tenants, neither of which lasted for more than six months, Reuben said.
"The building sat empty for a year before we got here," he added, of their 1987 opening.
Reuben began his career in the restaurant business in 1960 when he worked in Columbia, S.C., for drive-in restaurants similar to Shoney's. There was a stint working at the Army and Air Force Exchange Services at Fort Bragg while Vietnam "was going crazy," before Reuben met a man from Pensacola and the two opened a restaurant on South Carolina's Lake Murray in the early '70s.
Despite operating Lion's Head, a very successful restaurant in the heart of Columbia, Reuben was drawn to the Emerald Coast by a business partner who wanted to open a one-of-a-kind restaurant in Fort Walton Beach. Construction on Destinee's was completed in 1983.
"It was a huge restaurant with glass windows overlooking the sound," Mary said of the building which sat next to what is now the 200 West Condominiums. "It was the place to be in Fort Walton — there was live entertainment and show bands."
"That's where the half-priced special started," Mary said, noting the famous Lighthouse dinner specials.
When the Shacklefords and their partners opened The Lighthouse, Destin was a very different place then it is today, as there were only a handful of restaurants in the area and most of the fast food restaurants "closed for the winters."
"We have seen Destin grow up, and out," Mary said. "We've seen it grow out and out and out, all the way to Panama City."
As for the restaurant itself, "It was basically a turn-key operation when we got here," Reuben told The Log.
"This mall was cutting edge and the place to be," Mary added.
When the Shacklefords first opened The Lighthouse, they had a simple goal, which was to offer affordable, delicious family dining. And there was no actual lighthouse to speak of.
"We had the name, but not the lighthouse," Reuben said, adding that they did have a steeple-like feature in the middle of the building.
In 1999 Reuben and Mary purchased the restaurant outright and became the sole owners. About the same time, construction was booming in Destin and new malls and restaurants were popping up overnight, so it seemed.
As competition increased in Destin, the Shacklefords "settled into a routine" and began focusing more of their efforts on Destin's wintertime visitors — the snowbirds — while still serving locals and summer visitors.
"They are some of the best people, they just want you to be nice to them," Mary said. "The snowbirds have helped keep us alive."
"We have made a lot of friends over the years that come back to see us year after year," she said. "They are our family and we are their family too."
As she looked around the empty restaurant, Mary began to re-enact a scene that she had just witnessed days earlier as a table of 18 guests were having dinner.
"The kids were running around and having fun and the parents were talking about how their parents used to bring them here as a kid," she said as she danced around the room. "Now they were sharing the experience with their kids. It was a great experience."
With July 31 less than two weeks away, the Shacklefords are still focusing on taking care of their guests, all the while actively searching for a restaurant space where they can relocate.
"Literally, we've found four places with restaurant capabilities," Mary said. "We can take our tables and our chairs, but we can't take our lighthouse."
Seating more than 250 patrons, The Lighthouse is a massive 8,000-square foot restaurant, which adds to the difficulty in searching for a new location. Most of the available spaces are not designed to handle such a big restaurant, let alone a giant lighthouse.
"You can't put the cart before the horse," Mary said of installing a lighthouse at a new location.
"To put up a lighthouse you'd have to own the property," Reuben told The Log. "It's a daunting task to think about moving."
As an affordable dining destination for almost three decades, the Shacklefords said the pure costs associated with retrofitting any space could be their biggest problem.
"We never tried to make a killing here, we just wanted to make a living," Mary said. "We've created millions of memories."
"Our plan is to move the restaurant, and that's what's keeping us going."