Willy Kochounian has the corner on a piece of paradise in Pine Island.
Anyone who visits the beach and wants a bite to eat is lured into Willy’s Tropical Breeze Café by its rustic wooden deck, shaded picnic tables and the smell of burgers cooking.
Kochounian took over the cafe in 1991 when it was more of a snack bar. He leases the land from Hernando County.
Then, in 1993, the No Name Storm leveled it. When Kochounian rebuilt, his vision was crafted into a picturesque staple of the Pine Island landscape that has hosted visitors from across the country and abroad.
For nearly 20 years Willy’s has served visitors who don’t hesitate to find Kochounian and compliment his little outdoor café on the beach.
“I get Christmas cards from all over the world,” he said.
Willy’s paints an image of Florida at its tropical best, with bright hues and palm trees that whisper gently in the cool Gulf breezes. Camera shutters flicker as visitors capture a moment in time.
But Kochounian said the part that makes the biggest impact on those who try his eatery is the menu. This isn’t just snack-bar food. Willy’s serves traditional items, such as cheeseburgers and fries, along with selections like steak wraps, grilled mahi-mahi and steamed shrimp.
“We have a wide variety and everything is freshly made,” Kochounian said. “We get compliments every day because we’re not your typical beach stand. We sell really good food here.”
Chris and Dianna Butler and their sons, Dakota, 14, and Jordan, 10, came out to enjoy the sea breezes on a warm June evening and stopped in for a meal at one of Willy’s umbrella-covered wooden picnic tables on the deck.
The Weeki Wachee residents are regulars to Pine Island and eat at Willy’s frequently because of the variety of food and the charm of the little café.
“We’ve been to a lot of beach-type restaurants,” said Dianna Butler. “This is by far the best selection and best food on the beach.”
They ordered a Willy’s favorite: burgers and fries.
They have tried a variety of other menu items and raved about the quality.
“But the burgers are really good,” Dianna Butler said.
Willy found Pine Island in 1978 and purchased a little home for he and his wife. She wasn’t yet in Florida when he painted a picture over the phone, comparing it to Gilligan’s Island.
And Pine Island hasn’t changed a whole lot since. A few more houses have gone up and traffic has increased to and from the park but it remains quiet most of the time.
Kochounian keeps the café open year round, weather permitting, and closes each night just before sundown. Through the years, he has added a few items to his menu to meet the requests of customers. But for the most part, things have stayed about the same.
He is thankful for the opportunity to spend his days working and playing in the beauty of Hernando County’s paradise, serving customers.
“People tell us every day, things that make you feel good,” he said. “That you’re providing something unique for them.”
Kochounian thanks the community for their support, embracing his decision to rebuild after the storm and helping to make Willy’s one of Hernando County’s most visited landmarks.
“I love Pine Island,” he said. “It’s natural, untouched. That’s what I tell people, we are Florida untouched.”
Email Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at firstname.lastname@example.org.