New bistro depends on working class around the lake

LAKEPORT — Stephanie and Bill Matchekosky found a little slice of heaven on Lake Okeechobee a couple of decades ago, visiting often to go fishing while raising a family in Naples. They took the leap and moved out here in 2007 after selling their auto body shop there in 2004.

“It was the draw of the lake, it was the smaller town, it was to get away from all the traffic in Naples; the quiet, the peacefulness. Before we moved here we were just weekenders like a lot of the people are, a lot of the younger people. And we decided once the kids graduated we’d move here permanently and have some rentals to supplement our income, but we’re trying to get out of that now,” Stephanie explained one recent morning, chatting at a table in her comfy new cafe here.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Stephanie and Bill Matchekosky chat with a table full of customers at the Lakeside Bistro in Lakeport.

She opened the Lakeside Bistro in the marina/boat storage complex, 11692 E. State Road 78 (Moore Haven, 33471), on Aug. 29, 2018, so it’s almost 1-year-anniversary-planning time.

She’d been previously married and her children grew up and moved out of state; now they’re 30 and 32. When Stephanie and Coast Guard-certified Captain Bill Matchekosky got together and wed in the late 1990s she gained a stepson, now 25. They’re all grown up now, and the couple have grandchildren, so with the nest empty she turned her thoughts back to business.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
A local lady smiles after placing her order while sales assistant Ellen Mahoney (behind card rack) and owner Stephanie Matchekosky (right) work in the kitchen.

One of the toughest trades
Despite the long odds against novice restaurateurs making it these days, she was up for the challenge.

“I wanted something different. Lakeport needed something different. I used to work in the medical field at a front office, and that was it for me. We decided I wanted to be closer to home because I worked in LaBelle, for four years, 90 miles a day round trip, and now … this kind of came about, and we lived close,” Mrs. Matchekosky said, so she took the plunge.

Lakeside Bistro was an addition to the town. “There’s different restaurants, but I didn’t want to have anything fried, I didn’t want to get big, I wanted something small, something homey, something — you know — just different,” she said.

So the result is Lakeside Bistro’s small breakfast and lunch menu; but what’s on it packs a flavorful punch — made by Stephanie’s own “10 hands, they think I have,” she joked — and is varied, wholesome, hearty and delicious.

She makes most of the menu items by herself and has a sales associate, Ellen Mahoney. Just the two of them. But the platters are well worth the short wait.

Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Angie Snow-Colegrove
Customers stand in line during a busy lunch hour Wednesday, July 31.

Her delicious chicken salad is one of her most popular lunch items (order early, or she might be out!), but customers who just call in a sandwich order might miss out on one of the fabulous soups of the day (since they can’t be enticed by the wonderful aromas in the space until they come for pickup). I just happened to be lucky that Wednesday, July 31, was lobster bisque day, last time I stopped by. (MmmMM good.) The breakfast items, sandwiches, subs and salads are excellent, too, however (full disclosure: It wasn’t my first time in).

Working class clientele
So, although it would seem maybe late August wouldn’t be the best time to open a new eatery in South Florida — at the depth of the steamy, rainy tourism off-season — but it worked out well for her.

“Who keeps me going is the construction company crews that are working around the lake. Thalle, Kiewit, all of them that are working around here are my daily lunch regulars. GCSO (county sheriff’s employees), Glades County EMS, SPD (the Seminole Police Department), FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) officers … My husband works with a lot of them. He’s a firefighter here, also owns Lake Tow & Recovery and works out of our house, but he goes all over the whole lake,” Mrs. Matchekosky said. Capt. Bill is currently chief of the Lakeport Volunteer Fire Department.

“The working class people around here have kept me going,” she says. Nothing on the menu costs over $10.

Now for the “Lake O Livelihood$” questions: She has established a niche for herself here with the bistro, and knows that her fortune is directly connected to Lake Okeechobee and its relative health in any given year.

“My livelihood here at the bistro, my husband’s livelihood with his business, definitely depends on the lake,” she said. “And it hurts, like when we went through last year and the lake was so low. The duck hunters would come and they’d leave because there were no ducks. Then people would come fish, and they’d leave. You know — the Northerners — they go, they’d leave, or the weekenders who would come and stay for a few weeks” didn’t do so or just didn’t come.

Was it the algae brouhaha? “No, I think it was the lake levels. I think the algae thing is an every-year thing because the water gets so hot, it just gets stagnant. And if there’s no flow, it’s going to get … algae every year.

“So no, I think the lake has a lot to do with all of the businesses here, I really do,” Mrs. Matchekosky said.

Asked if she believes the lake is healthy now, “It’s going to get there,” she replied. “They are doing the right things for it, even having it low.”

She loves the small-town atmosphere as the best thing about living near the second-biggest freshwater lake in the nation, and doesn’t put much stock in coastal residents’ arguments that lake discharges are the main culprit for their blue green algae and red tide problems; in fact, she said she pays no attention to those debates now. “I don’t live there anymore,” she says.

Capt. Bill and Stephanie Matchekosky are actually too busy with their businesses and preparations for the upcoming tourist season to think about what might force them to leave the lake area, if anything. Their focus is keeping their customers satisfied.

Email suggestions for future profiles in this ongoing series to cfelker@newszap.com.

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