NAPLES, Florida. This sun-splashed city on the west coast of Florida is a curious mixture of permanent and seasonal residents, with luxury cars idling on eight-lane highways next to “trucks driven by rednecks hauling watermelons” says Assistant Registrar of Notary Publics DeWayne Morris. “We also have a lot of alligators, but for the most part they stay here during the winter.”
What there is widespread agreement on among the population, however, is the merit of “early-bird specials”; discounted dinners served by local restaurants to patrons who fill empty chairs during off hours, generally 2 to 4 p.m., before the evening rush begins. “If it weren’t for the early-bird, I couldn’t afford to eat out much,” says Miriam Schnucks, a widow whose husband burned through their retirement savings betting on greyhound races and jai alai.
But the “early bird” way of life is undergoing a transformation as dining establishments compete with each other for the lucrative 15% tips senior citizens frequently leave behind. “I’m not going to sit idly by while some chain restaurant steals my customers,” says Larry Archibald of Jungle Larry’s Steak House. “The best defense is a good offense, and vice versa.”
So Archibald moved his early bird dinner time back to noon, and made a corresponding change to his lunch early bird, which now begins at 8 a.m., compounding the confusion many seniors experience as their cognitive abilities fade with age.
“I’ll have the prime rib,” says former auto parts salesman Harold “Hal” Marquand as he looks up over his plastic menu to Violette Armand this morning during peak breakfast hours at the Tropical Garden, a restaurant on Airport Pulling Road.
“If you’re here for last night’s early bird it’s too late,” she says with a smile that does a poor job of masking her impatience. “On the other hand, if you’re here for tonight’s dinner early bird, you’re too soon.”
“What’d she say?” Marquand says to Amy, a fifty-something woman he married shortly after his first wife died in a tragic shower accident.
“You can’t get dinner early bird, you either have to eat regular breakfast or early bird lunch,” she says loudly into the better of his two failing ears.
“I’ll be right back,” the waitress says as she scans the other tables assigned to her. “I need to refill a few coffee cups.”
Economists with nothing else to study say so-called “super early-bird specials” are a drag on productivity, and threaten the region’s booming service sector. “We don’t actually make anything down here besides oranges,” says Professor Myron Martin of Florida International On-Line University. “Everybody’s cutting stuff–lawns, hair, poodles–or cooking and serving food, so it’s not like we can afford a bunch of 80-year-olds screwing up their digestive cycles eating BLTs for breakfast.”
But that doesn’t stop 86-year-old T.J. “Bud” Charrette, a retired guidance counselor from Oceola, Missouri. “Let’s see,” he says as scans the menu at the Golden Outhouse Restaurant on Alligator Alley here. “I’ll have a stack of pancakes, the open-faced roast beef sandwich and a hot fudge sundae.”