Jesse Dowling was just 22 years old when he figured it out. He was heading out for a day on Silver Glen Springs, a popular boating destination in the Ocala National Forest. Sick of eating cold sandwiches, he and his buddy Frank Cunningham set up a Coleman gas grill on the back of their ski boat, hooked a microwave into the cigarette lighter socket, and got to work cooking up mac-and-cheese, mashed potatoes and grilled steaks.
“We were just making stuff for us, you know?” Dowling told Folio Weekly. “And people just started coming up to the boat like zombies, smelling the meat cooking. Next thing you know, we had a crowd lined up behind the boat asking us if we were selling food.”
That’s the moment it clicked for him. “I said ‘This is it. We need to do a food boat.’”
That was 16 years ago, and through many ups and downs in the food industry—including one destroyed boat and a few disappointing restaurant ventures—Dowling and Cunningham are still cooking on the water.
Their S.O.S. Diner is now in its third year, and business is booming. (If you’re wondering, S.O.S. is an acronym for Save Our Stomachs.) Dowling and his crew drop anchor at Bayard Point, south of Green Cove Springs, around 11 a.m. most Saturdays and Sundays during the summer.
“Once we start serving, we don’t stop until people start leaving,” Dowling said. “It was kinda slow going at first, but now it’s a monster. Now everybody knows. We’re feeding them when they get there and feeding them when they leave.”
Boating culture, the St. Johns River and, in particular, the area around Marker 24 have been central to the lives of Dowling and Cunningham.
“We grew up in the St. Johns River. We’ve been going to that same sandbar for 20, 30 years,” Dowling explained.
And it’s all led him to this point. S.O.S started as a food truck in his hometown of St. Augustine. It was difficult to operate it, though, due to some regulatory red tape that made it impossible to serve during the business day. “St. Johns County just didn’t get on board with mobile food right away,” Dowling explained. “It wasn’t cost-effective to drive to Jax for lunch and then back for dinner seven days a week.”
“It was stressful not having a steady paycheck. It was 7 a.m. to midnight, everyday grinding,” he recalled. “Food trucks aren’t how they portray it on the Food Network. You can’t just roll in and start selling food and people come flocking. You have to establish a clientele.” And, he said, he just couldn’t do that, given the limited hours they were allowed to operate. It became such a hassle that he decided to change careers after 25 years in the food industry.
Dowling is now an aircraft mechanic, but he couldn’t stay away from cooking. From his time as a banquet chef, executive chef and entrepreneur, this is by far his favorite gig. His hours can still get crazy on the weekends, but at least he’s out on the water, spending time with his friends and his wife, Laura.
She fields the orders and passes out the food while Dowling and Cunningham share cooking duties. “She started with me on the food truck,” said Dowling. “We make a good team.” She’s just as much a key to their success as the good food, he says. “When she’s not there, people are asking where she is! She’s just a people person.”
The food truck helped Dowling get his feet wet. Eventually he took the leap and bought a boat. “It’s more relaxing out there on the water,” he said. Though he loves being with everybody at the Point—he’d be out there most weekends even if he didn’t have the diner—Dowling is taking it easier this year.
“Last year was exhausting,” he explained. In a week, he would spend 40 to 50 hours at his day job, and another 30 hours dedicated to shopping, prepping and serving on the boat. “That’s why we won’t be out every weekend,” he said, “so we can go fishing, enjoy the outdoors, have our downtime.”
“It’s a recreational job,” he added, “not a pay-the-bills job.”
Though he may be doing just it for fun, he takes food preparation seriously. The menu changes weekly based on what’s sustainable, what’s fresh. His food is never prepackaged or frozen. And his customers can’t get enough.
“Our burger is probably the top seller,” he said. “Everyone who has it says it’s the best burger they’ve ever had. That’s what they say about everything! The Reuben, shrimp po’ boy, the gator tail. Man, that’s the best gator tail I’ve ever had!”
Chris Vann, owner of Jax Boat Rentals, agrees. “My favorite? Probably the hamburger,” he confided. “My son loves the catfish nuggets.” Vann’s business serves the same area, and one of its most popular annual events, Boater Skip Day, is coming up this weekend.
“It’s like a national holiday for boaters,” Vann said.
Now in its fifth year, the event has grown from mere dozens to hundreds of boats. This year’s gathering is predicted to be bigger than ever. S.O.S. Diner is more or less the official caterer of the event, and Dowling and his crew are expecting a non-stop line of hungry revelers.
Dowling’s love of food, and his enjoyment of serving his fellow boaters, keep him going during the long hours, especially leading up to these big boating weekends. “If we’re not out there, people are bringing sandwiches, they’re getting wet in the cooler,” he said. “I like being able to make people happy through food. It’s fun being out there, even if we’re the only ones working.”