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Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association pushes back against proposed travel ban

Jan Waddy
The News Herald

In a state that relies so heavily on visitors to keep the hospitality industry thriving, it's no surprise there are concerns for businesses' survival amid reports the White House is considering domestic travel restrictions to help curb the spread of the latest COVID strain.

South Walton Chef and Restaurateur Jim Shirley, who serves as chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, offered a statewide perspective.

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“Restricting visitors to Florida would be disastrous for our hospitality industry and our team members. We have been fighting tooth and nail to stay open, operate safely and increase our business to get on the road to economic recovery. Prohibiting visitors would put an abrupt end to any recovery or progress we have made and would significantly hurt our industry," Shirley said Thursday.

South Walton restaurateur and chef Jim Shirley is chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Shirley, who was elected as chairman of the FRLA in 2020, works with FRLA senior leadership and staff to identify and achieve priorities for the year to advance Florida’s hospitality industry. He helps direct policy efforts and serves as a liaison and leader to Florida’s statewide hospitality industry and to FRLA members across the state. 

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On Thursday, Carol Dover, president and CEO of the FRLA, released the following statement: “The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association represents 10,000 members across the state who are trying to rebuild following a devastating 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we believe public safety is paramount, our members have done everything in their power to go above and beyond sanitation and safety procedures to keep guests and employees safe during this unprecedented time."

Dover also stressed FRLA shares concerns raised by Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio about harmful consequences of potential travel bans, arguing that the travel restrictions would erode the small gains restaurants have made toward economic recovery.

Owner of Chef Jim Shirley Enterprises, Shirley's restaurants include Great Southern Café, 45 Central Wine Bar, and b.f.f. in Seaside, as well as The Bay Restaurant and Farm & Fire Southern Pizzeria in Santa Rosa Beach. He also is co-owner of Meltdown on 30A in Seaside. 

"My main goal as chairman of the FRLA is keeping our brothers and sisters in business,” Shirley stated. “Working with the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, we will provide hotels and restaurants with the tools they need to keep their doors open. Our successful advocacy at the state and national levels is critical to the survival of our businesses, and I look forward to making great strides this year.”

The staff at Bud & Alley's Pizza Bar in Seaside get the outdoor dining area ready for opening last year.

In 2020, Shirley also became the 16th recipient of the Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award, recognizing his excellence in the hospitality, service, travel/tourism, advertising and promotion industries, as well as contributions to the local community. 

In 2020 Jim Shirley became the 16th recipient of the Van Ness Butler Jr. Hospitality Award, recognizing his excellence in the hospitality, service, travel/tourism, advertising and promotion industries, as well as contributions to the local community.

“It’s an incredible honor to get the Van Ness Butler Jr. Award,” Shirley said. “I mean, how does that happen to a chef in South Walton? I’ve seen all the great work done by the people that have received this before and it’s amazing when you achieve something like this.”

Shirley takes a simple, genuine approach to hospitality.

“When I think about what’s happening around me, I just like to think about whether or not people are comfortable. Everything that’s in me is about hospitality,” he said.

In addition to the pandemic, Panhandle restaurants just east of Walton County in neighboring Bay County and surrounding areas also have had to overcome challenges stemming from Hurricane Michael's devastation in October 2018.

As thousands found themselves without housing, food and basic needs, Shirley and other area chefs and community members jumped into action. Shirley was able to use his resources — from tents and cooking utensils to food and manpower, to feed the hungry and give hope.

“I think you should just give back instinctively,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to think about it. It’s just an immediate reaction — if somebody falls down, you pick them back up. That’s just the way you do things.”

Shirley estimates he and his team served between 30,000 and 40,000 meals.

“Everybody took turns, really,” he said of the efforts. “The whole area just stepped up.”

Shirley, who represented Florida in the 2015 Great American Seafood Cook-off, has been invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City four times.

He is the author of the cookbook, “Good Grits! Southern Boy Cooks,” a compilation of his best recipes along with entertaining stories.

“Grits a Ya Ya (at Great Southern Café) is the most popular dish I’ve ever made,” Shirley said during a September 2019 interview. “Great Southern Café is classic Southern with a fresh modern twist. At The Bay, we mix it up with international things and incorporate sushi into that.”