The journey of John Doering, co-owner of JT’s Seafood Shack, is a great example of someone working their way up and not being afraid to try new things. From cleaning floors at Morrison’s Cafeteria at the age of 15 to co-owing three restaurants, John has spent nearly 40 years in the restaurant business. He shared the story behind his journey and why JT’s, also owned and operated by his wife, Brandy, is beloved by locals and tourists.
“When I first started at Morrison’s Cafeteria in Orange Park, FL, I was basically the ‘night man’ cleaning floors and toilets,” he said. “Eventually I was promoted to dishwasher, line cook and then to the top chef position. After two and a half years, I got a job with Bistro One as a line cook. The owners also own Raintree Restaurant in Saint Augustine, so in addition to learning a new cuisine, I also made some good connections. After about a year I went to Embassy Suites. When Bistro One closed down, my previous boss called and asked me to come back and work with him again – this time at Raintree.”
John spent 11 years with Raintree Restaurant. The owners put him through culinary school at the Southeast Institute of Culinary Arts where he became certified and eventually made sous-chef at the restaurant. After a vacation to the Florida Keys, John fell in love with the area and temporarily moved down there. When he returned to Northeast Florida, to be closer to his aging grandmother, John was presented with a new opportunity.
“My old boss at Raintree called and said he was opening a new restaurant in Crescent Beach called South Beach Grill,” John said. “He asked me to help him open it. After about a year, I bought out one of the partners and together we grew it. Then we decided to open JT’s.”
John and his partner were originally looking for locations around Flagler Beach. At the time, JT’s was called Peggy’s Place and it was basically just a biker bar. Their first thought was that it would require too much work to turn it into a restaurant but, even though at the time it was in an area all by itself, the price was right and they had a vision.
“That was in May of 2001,” John said. “About five years later, we opened our third restaurant, which is now called Black Fly. We sold that and eventually we went our separate ways. Since then, Brandy, who grew up in the seafood business and has a degree in Restaurant Management from FSU, and I have been the owners and operators of JT’s. Over the years, we did a few extra things including running a food truck at Marineland and the café at the Fountain of Youth attraction in Saint Augustine. Today, we’re solely focused on JT’s.”
Through mostly word-of-mouth and, in the early days, print advertising, John and Brandy, along with a long-term and loyal management team, have grown JT’s into a regular hangout for locals and, during tourist season, a popular stop for out-of-towners looking for authentic Florida seafood dishes. Located on five acres, JTs also provides live entertainment.
“For the most part, our food drives the bus,” John said. “Besides great food, weekly specials and homemade desserts, we also have music seven days a week and plenty of TVs to watch sports. We recently completed a few projects including infrastructure work, backyard improvements and adding a sandbox for the kids. We’ve created a true family restaurant with something for everyone.”
What advice does John have for aspiring restaurateurs? “The restaurant business is tough,” he said. “Getting past the first five years is the hardest. You have to be committed to it. You might think someone else is going to run it for you, but that’s not going to happen. No one will ever run your restaurant how you want it to be run. You have to be there to make sure quality isn’t slipping. Also, over time, it’s a challenge to keep things fun and exciting, but you have to do it to survive.”