By Brian Sherman, The Island Eye News Editor
The name of the iconic beach-side restaurant on Isle of Palms apparently will remain the same, but its owner has walked off into the sunset, leaving behind a 23-year legacy of what he likes to call “outrageous food, fun and family.”
Coconut Joe’s, which opened its doors one floor up on Ocean Boulevard on April 11, 1997, officially changed hands June 23, when a deal was completed between longtime proprietor Joe Petro and Perry Freeman, owner of Charleston Sports Pubs. The sale marked the end of Petro’s 51-year run in the restaurant business, a culinary career that was born when he started busing tables as a teenager in Ventura, California.
Along the way, he met and for five years worked with Ted Murphy. Both were veterans of the corporate restaurant industry, and, at some point, they decided that owning an eatery might be a good idea. Their plans to test that theory received a major boost when a restaurant known as The Shipwreck went under. Not long after, they combined their talent and experience to launch what would become an IOP landmark. Coconut Joe ran the restaurant, while Tequila Ted oversaw the bar.
“He had the money and I had the brains,” Petro explained. “We happened to be standing in the right place at the right time.”
Success was not assured early on for the two entrepreneurs. Family members helped make ends meet by working at the restaurant, and, since they bought all their chairs and tables used, none of them matched – and much of the furniture was held together with wire and duct tape. They realized that they were wasting revenue-producing space by not using the rooftop, so they opened it up to dining, only to find that customers were being attacked by birds foraging and fighting for scraps of food.
Petro and Murphy converted the roof into a bar in 1999, attracting customers from the beach by blaring live music. Lacking funds, they served drinks out of an ice chest and didn’t even have a cash register on the roof.
“It was so archaic. There were no computers, but we didn’t have the money to make improvements,” Petro said.
All that changed around the turn of the century, when two hotels were built on Ocean Boulevard, providing Coconut Joe’s with a nearby supply of customers.
“That’s when the goose started laying the golden eggs,” Petro said. “Between 2000 and 2004, 400 weekly rental rooms were added with walking distance. People realized we were here and that it was a really cool place.”
They added a permanent bar on the roof of the building and “we became well-recognized as the premier rooftop bar in Charleston,” Petro pointed out.
By 2005, however, Petro, who bought Tequila Ted’s share of the business a year earlier, determined that he would prefer Coconut Joe’s to be “a family restaurant that has a really great rooftop bar.”
“We decided to go after the family vacationers. It was risky, but it worked. We became the only kid-friendly restaurant on the island,” he said. “My wife was magic with kids. She learned early on that to make Mom and Dad happy, you have to make the kids happy.”
Marti Petro, a teacher, worked at Joe’s part time as a hostess. Their daughter, Caitlin, also helped out, first washing dishes and later as a “culinary specialist.” Ten years ago, she got married and moved to Greenville, returning in 2016 to take over management of the restaurant. Petro said she wanted to make sure the business remained viable until it could be sold so her parents would be set financially in their retirement years.
Coconut Joe’s had its best year ever in 2019, and the future looked rosy early in 2020 as well. With the restaurant in Caitlin’s capable hands, Joe and Marti Petro had already moved to Maryville, Tennessee, where they had planned to retire.
“We thought we were the cat’s meow. We were looking forward to another great year,” Petro said. “Caitlin has been so great, so service oriented and so employee-friendly and employee focused.”
That, of course, was before COVID-19 struck. With Isle of Palms virtually shut down because of the pandemic, the family decided it was time to sell the restaurant.
At the age of 67, despite the headaches of owning a restaurant, Petro has many pleasant memories and few regrets about his tenure at Coconut Joe’s.
“The most rewarding thing is all the loyal customers,” he said. “The last three days, there’s been an outpouring of love for our family. There haven’t been any haters yet.”