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Swamp Water Cafe reopens with new look

From left to right, Ricky Doctor, Linda Beletso, Judy Jim and Deloris Alvarez get together for lunch at the Swamp Water Cafe. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — After shutting down due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Swamp Water Cafe reopened April The cafe’s hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Located at Billie Swamp Safari on the Big Cypress Reservation, the restaurant returned with a limited menu that includes favorites such as the swampburger and chicken wings as well as swamp sauce, the wings’ most popular sauce developed by operations manager Haftu Kahsay. It is a sweet chili sauce with a few secret ingredients.

The safari – a tourist attraction – has remained closed since the start of the pandemic, so most of the cafe’s customers come from the tribal community, including residents and employees.

One key change made to the cafe was a redesign of the kitchen, making it more efficient so food comes out quicker and gets into the hands of customers faster.

“These changes will speed things up,” Kahsay said.

Now cooks take fewer steps to get what they need for a dish, which has sped up the process.

“The old one wasn’t a proper kitchen,” Kahsay said. “This one is designed for cooks; they don’t have to walk from place to place for ingredients. It makes their job easier and gets the food out faster.”

Other changes include how guests order their meals. Table service is a thing of the past; the redesigned cafe features a counter-based service with an electronic menu board. Printed menus, complete with pictures of the food, are available at the counter for those who are more comfortable using them to place an order.

Another new feature is the option to order online at swampwatercafe.com. In the restaurant, a QR code is prominently displayed on napkin holders. Customers can scan the code with their phone’s camera and the menu will appear. They can also pay from their table. Employees bring orders to tables, so there is no need to stand and wait for food.

The back room can be reserved for meetings or private events. Kahsay sees a lot of potential in the air conditioned space with its hot and cold buffet stations. The cafe is also available for catering and plans to cater the Ahfachkee School’s graduation in June.

Another new addition is a state-of-the-art Freestyle 7000 drink station, which has more than 99 flavor combinations. Guests can mix and match flavors to create their own unique drinks.

The cafe has seven employees. Every employee is trained to do more than one job.

“They enjoy working here,” Kahsay said. “I believe you have to be happy at work. When everyone comes in happy, it’s management’s job to make sure we keep that mood until the end of service. I say ‘let’s do this’ instead of ‘you do that.’ I step in to help when I see the need. Teamwork always wins; we help each other and work together.”

Kahsay runs the restaurant with an open mind and flexibility. During daily staff meetings he considers comments from the community and employees and makes changes when appropriate.

Kahsay’s connections to the tribe date back to 2009 when he began working as a line cook at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek. He worked his way up to chef and then manager. He has been working at the cafe since 2016.

“This is my dream job,” he said. “I’ve got no other dreams, I’m more than happy here.”

Customers line up to place their orders at the Swamp Water Cafe’s electronic menu board May 6. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Swamp Water Cafe operations manager Haftu Kahsay helps out in the kitchen during the lunch rush. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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