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Behind the Scenes: Safe Harbor restaurant opens doors

When most restaurateurs were closing up shop, Ben and Liza Groshell couldn’t open up new restaurants fast enough to keep up with demand.

The husband-and-wife duo, who founded Marker 32 in Jacksonville Beach 24 years ago, originally opened Palm Valley Fish Camp as a fun pursuit. The Groshells had spent time in fish camps along the coast, and wanted to open something like it in the area.

It soon became more than that. The fish camps evolved into a way of staying afloat during an economy that radically shifted the way people spent money.

“It got bad for everybody, especially in the luxury end. We noticed that some restaurants were doing better than ever at that time,” Groshell said. “My wife and I had been working on a concept to do a little fish camp. It’s a fun atmosphere where you can go and relax, with a great price point, enjoy their seafood and whatever they’re known for.”

That concept resonated with customers. After opening Palm Valley Fish Camp in 2009, two other fish camps followed: North Beach Fish Camp and Julington Creek Fish Camp, which opened in December 2014.

“The community there just fell in love with us and it was really great. Part of what makes it that local neighborhood restaurant is the name recognition of the town that it’s in,” Liza Groshell said. “Ben tailors the menu on the individual community and what their tastes are. You’ll see small changes in each of the fish camps, even though they have the underlying menu and the underlying thread.”

Although each fish camp was tailored to the neighborhood it served, there was a formula common to each of them: a simple, straightforward menu, a reasonable price point and a casual setting.

The newest restaurant under the Groshells’ management group, Southern Table Hospitality, is its most casual yet. Safe Harbor, which opened Feb. 9 in Jacksonville Beach, is its first fast casual restaurant. It still has all of the trademarks customers have become familiar with at Groshell-owned restaurants, including fresh seafood and a scenic view.

The menu includes seafood staples like fresh oysters, Mayport shrimp, clam chowder and po’ boys, as well as appetizers with a twist, like shrimp nachos. The sides are based on Southern comfort food, with options like bacon black-eyed peas, hush puppies and fried okra.

Liza Groshell calls the restaurant a “natural progression” of their longtime relationship with Mayport-based Safe Harbor Seafood Market. Marker 32 has been using Safe Harbor seafood since starting up, and the Groshells helped Safe Harbor start a restaurant at its market last year. The restaurant will formalize the partnership, with Safe Harbor and Southern Table Hospitality running the restaurant together.

Groshell said, like its other restaurants, Safe Harbor will be tailored to the community it’s in.

“Every neighborhood has this seafood dive or hub,” Liza Groshell said. “We hope to be a positive influence.”

The Groshells have more than just seafood in the pipeline. They plan to open a sixth restaurant — a barbecue restaurant called Valley Smoke — in the fourth quarter. The new restaurant will be close to Palm Valley Fish Camp, on 11 S. Roscoe Blvd. Valley Smoke, like all of the Groshells’ restaurants, will have a waterfront view.

“It’s a little bit of a transition. There’s a movement when it comes to elevating barbecue products,” Ben Groshell said.

Liza Groshell said Ponte Vedra is a growing area for restaurants, particularly the Roscoe area. She said there are several commercial spaces available in the same area that would be ideal for other restaurants to move in.

“If ultimately Roscoe becomes restaurant row, I’m OK with that,” Groshell said.

Now, seven years after launching Palm Valley Fish Camp, Ben and Liza Groshell are just happy with the results.

“It wasn’t built to do this, it just kind of happened. The response was phenomenal,” Groshell said.

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