Leslie and Paul Steward reflect on 20 years of great breakfasts, brunches and lunches.
Story by Bailey Gilliam + Photography by Michael Hrizuk
Biscuits n’ gravy, crab cake eggs Benedict, stuffed French toast, breakfast burritos with homemade salsa, she-crab soup, quiche du jour — customers have raved about the delectable breakfast, brunch and lunch selections served at Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe for 20 years. As owners Leslie and Paul “Stew” Stewart get ready to celebrate their milestone anniversary on March 4, they gave LOCAL Life the scoop and dished about becoming a successful island staple surviving two decades in the restaurant business.
Rise to the challenge
“We’ve seen it all in 20 years,” muses Stew. “We really had no clue,” adds Leslie. “A lot of people told us we wouldn’t make it at all.”
When the Stewarts opened their restaurant 20 years ago at 86 Helmsman Way on Hilton Head, they never imagined the success that would come their way. They opened their eatery in an abandoned building, and next door was an out-of-business T-shirt shop and a former restaurant that burned down, Leslie recalls.
“When they built the Cross Island, it made Palmetto Bay Marina a dead end,” said Leslie. “Everyone was saying it’s not the place to go, it’s not a good place to be, there’s not enough foot traffic. We heard that a lot.”
Stew and Leslie were on the island working in the industry since 1986 and 1988, respectively, before they opened Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe in 2002. They started with nine tables, 10 barstools and five tables out on the patio before their hungry customer base forced them to expand.
“We knew people would come,” said Leslie, “but we were just thinking we could do 100 breakfasts throughout the whole day and have a little coffee shop. We never had any idea that someday we would serve 500 or 600 breakfasts a day.”
While pointing out a large seating section that was closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Leslie recounted the challenges she and Stew faced during the last few years, fighting to stay afloat. “I learned bigger is not always better,” she said. “As an island, we already had a problem getting employees. And then Covid made it 100 percent worse.”
The Stewarts were open seven days a week but decided to cut back to five. “We would rather do five days the right way than seven days the wrong way,” said Leslie, referring to the staffing shortage. “And right now that’s still the problem, and I don’t foresee it becoming less of a problem for a long time.”
The Stewarts also proved their resilience when switching to strictly take-out during the initial six weeks of the shutdown. “In the beginning, everyone said ‘no, let’s not do that,’” she said. “But, I thought we have to get dressed and we have to come down here and try every day because if we don’t, we could disappear.”
Initially Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe served fewer than 20 meals a day. By the end of the take-out period, they were serving 120. “We finally learned that people don’t want to eat eggs Benedict out of a box, so we adjusted our menu to more handheld items,” said Leslie. “We also sold dinners in foil pans that made it easy to buy, take home and heat up for later. We don’t serve dinners like that anymore, but in that timeframe, we did what we thought we could do. It was not a great year, obviously, but we maintained, we stayed alive, we did not close, and I’m pretty proud of that. I just felt like we had to keep trying. You’ve got to keep trying.”
Made to order
The Stewarts have held hard and fast rules on ingredients: they have to be fresh, homemade and serve the menu in multiple ways. But over the years, their menu has expanded and changed as they try to think of different ways to keep it exciting, like adding a fried chicken Benedict with sausage gravy. “We have a lot of original ideas, and we’ve had a lot of ideas that have stemmed from our customers,” said Leslie. “Obviously, eggs Benedict is not an original idea, but our ‘Pretty Darn’ Benedict was born from catering to the vegan population. There’s a band on the island called Pretty Darn, and they became vegan and wanted to be able to come here and have breakfast, so we created a Benedict with no eggs or hollandaise and instead serve it with guacamole and fresh homemade salsa.”
Palmetto Bay Sunrise Cafe’s popular dishes certainly cater to its customers, but the staff at the restaurant is just as well-seasoned as its food. “I honestly think as good as the food is, and it is good, I’m not downplaying the food, I honestly think it’s more about the staff and the experience that people get because our staff is very attentive,” said Leslie. “Some of our staff members have been here for 15 to 20 years. And they get to know our customers, they get to know their kids, their pet’s names, they know everything about them. And I think a lot of people return because of the camaraderie.”
“When it comes to your staff, take care of your people,” said Leslie. “That’s the biggest tip I can give any restaurateur. If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of you.” LL
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
1 pinch fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 splash white wine
1 pat of butter
1 glug nice olive oil
1/2 lemon, squeeze
Salt and pepper to taste
Directions  In a large sauté pan, add butter and olive oil over medium heat.  Season shrimp and add to pan.  Shake gently and add garlic, tomatoes and basil. Toss shrimp to coat.  Squeeze lemon and serve.
She Crab Soup
4 stalks celery, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups flour
1 cup melted butter
1 tablespoon dry tarragon
1 teaspoon Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Lawry’s Season Salt
2 tablespoons seafood flavored soup base
1 cup sweet sherry
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 quarts heavy cream
1 pound claw crab meat
Directions  In a large soup pot, combine butter and flour.  Purée carrots, celery, onions and garlic.  With a wire whip, stir the purée into flour and butter.  Add tarragon, Lawry’s, Worcestershire, soup base, pepper, sherry and cream. On medium heat, stir constantly until the soup gently boils.  Add crabmeat and serve.
Sprout Momma bread
Radish sprouts, from River Root Farms
Directions  Place one half of a sliced avocado on top of a slice of Sprout Momma bread.  Top with watercress and radish sprouts.  Sprinkle on toasted almonds.  Drizzle olive oil and balsamic on top. *Add an egg on top for added flavor and extra protein.
Chive, Horseradish Cream Sauce
(Sauce for the Potato Crusted Flounder)
1 pint heavy cream
At least 1/3 cup Seminole brand horseradish
1 teaspoon shrimp or lobster base, (better than bouillon)
Directions  In a medium-sized saucepan, add all cream, horseradish and base.  Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly. Don’t boil or it will overcook.  Gently simmer for 10 minutes until the sauce thickens.  Add 1 tablespoon of fresh or dry chopped chives. *Keeps for 1 week in the refrigerator.