By CHRIS HARRIS
Somerset has already had a taste of New Orleans. Now it’s time to move east across the Gulf of Mexico — to Florida.
And it’s all thanks to a woman with the restaurant business in her veins.
Beach Buckets is the newest eatery in downtown Somerest — located in the old Goldenberg’s Furniture building, which first became a restaurant in 2012 with the arrival of J. Gumbo’s, a Cajun restaurant.
Caroline Epperson is the new operating manager. It’s something of a homecoming for her, as Epperson is a Pulaski County native with deep roots in the community’s culinary history — her mother, Anna Childers, used to run the old Lakeview Restaurant, a familiar name to so many in this area.
“I’ve always been in this business,” said Epperson. “(Childers was) a single mom, and that was the best way for her to make money.”
About 15 years ago, however, Epperson made a move that would change her life — the ripples of which are being felt on Fountain Square today.
Epperson left her old Kentucky home for southwest Florida. That’s where a member of the Karamballas, former operator of Lee’s Ford Marina, had an enticing proposition for Epperson.
“One of my friends was starting a restaurant down there and wanted me to help him run it,” said Epperson. “I just needed a change. It was time ... There was more to life and more to offer (in Florida).”
After moving down there, however, Epperson came to receive a better offer, which took her to Fort Myers Beach, right on the gulf. She became owner Wahoo Willies and experienced success. Life, however, shuffled the deck as it so often does.
“My daddy got really sick,” said Epperson. “I came back up here on October 1 of last year. He passed away October 20. My mother is in real bad health, and she won’t leave (Pulaski) for love nor money.”
So instead of bringing her mother to Florida, Epperson replanted herself her where her roots are. However, when the opportunity arose to offer a helping hand with a struggling local restaurant, she decided to bring a little bit of Florida along for the ride.
Though the previous owner’s of J. Gumbo’s are still in place, Epperson is now working alongside them to bring a different concept to the space.
“I had to reinvent myself again,” said Epperson.
J. Gumbo’s opened in the spring of 2012 — perfect timing for a Cajun kitchen in Kentucky. The University of Kentucky Wildcat were playing in the Final Four down in New Orleans, and all things associated with that city suddenly felt very much en vogue here in the Bluegrass state. With the restaurant’s eventual expansion into the city’s first real nightspot after Somerset voters elected to allow alcohol sales later that year, J. Gumbo’s became a very popular place to be.
It didn’t last. “The Patels offered me this (job) because it wasn’t doing very well,” she said of the J. Gumbo’s/Captain’s Lounge combination. “(There were a lot of people) on the weekends, if you had a big concert, but the weeknights, the lunches and dinners need to carry it.”
J. Gumbo’s won’t be totally forgotten. Epperson said that about five or six of the best-selling items on that menu will stay on with Beach Buckets — gumbo, jambalaya, voodoo chicken. That sort of thing. For the most part, however, Epperson wants to bring the kind concept she was used to down in the Sunshine State up north.
“(The idea is) to bring a taste of Florida to Somerset, Ky.,” she said. “There’s nowhere here to get fresh, authentic grouper. There’s nowhere to get calamari. Nowhere to get alligator tail. Our crab legs are nice, big ones, and we have the all-you-can-eat crab.
“We also have land lovers (food), the Hawaii chicken and ‘Cheesburger in Paradise,’” she added. “I’m very Jimmy Buffett, very much in that state of mind, and when you walk through these doors, that’s what we want you to be.”
It’s also what Epperson has in mind for music, as the high-tech equipment installed for the earlier Captain’s Lounge concept remains in place. And while Pulaski County is known for its lake, rather than the ocean, the tourist traffic is still a lucrative draw for any business.
“We want to be that place to come to, just like on the beach,” said Epperson. “When you go on vacation, what do you do? You go find dinner and a show. We want to have that in Somerset.
“We want to have a ‘Parrothead’ concert,” she added, referencing the name for singer Buffett’s fans. “We want to have a thousand people packed on the square. It’ll be as big as a car show. That’s what I want to do.”
She said they’re also hoping to score a patio alcohol license, so that people can sit at the tables outside the restaurant on the sidewalk and have a beer with their meal (currently, alcoholic beverages are not able to be taken outside).
Responses for Beach Buckets have been “excellent” so far, said Epperson, who noted that the restaurant has already quadrupled it numbers on lunch sales after the concept change took place just shy of a month ago.
Truly, it’s a family affair, as Beach Buckets is a joint venture between Epperson, her sons Joseph and Christopher (the latter of whom has been a chef for Guthrie’s River House), and their girlfriends Kristy Gilbert and Megan Williams.
That helps create the kind of good, positive vibes Epperson wants for the place, as Caroline Epperson carries on the tradition of feeding hungry Pulaski Countians in a restaurant for the next generation of lakegoers, something she hopes will be reminiscent of a touristy location like Naples, Fla., or downtown Key West.
“(We want) a fun walking atmosphere that will bring more businesses downtown,” she said. “The more that we get colorful, the more artsy people are going to come, and the more people are going to want to move to this area — not just for the lake, but to bring them downtown. Our objective is to change it up a little bit, and I think we’ve accomplished that.”