July 23, 2020
This article is about a restaurant that no longer exists, Gary's Duck Inn in Orlando. It's gone, but a fond memory for me and many others.
I moved to Florida in 1960 and have never left. I have outlasted many of the restaurants and other places I enjoyed. All that remains of them for me is my memories, so I'll share a few.
In 1968 I moved to Orlando to work on the construction of Walt Disney World. In those early days, Gary's was one of the few Orlando restaurants you could go to when you felt like a great dinner.
It was located on South Orange Blossom Trail not far south of Interstate 4. When Gary Starling opened Gary's Duck Inn in 1945 that was not a bad neighborhood. South Orange Blossom Trail was also U.S.-441 and it was a major tourist highway.
Orlando was still a small town and didn't realize how much growth was on the future horizon including I-4 and Walt Disney World.
Gary Starling sold the restaurant in 1963 to a group of investors. The group included Bill Darden.
Darden was impressed with the food at Gary's and decided the menu could catch on nationally. He opened the first Red Lobster in 1968 in Lakeland, Florida. Back then Lakeland was a favorite place to try out new restaurant ideas.
I remember eating at that first one in Lakeland when it was only a couple of months old. I was hooked because it was the seafood that tasted the most like Gary's Duck Inn.
Other people must have agreed because Red Lobster has grown to a chain of 749 stores as of 2019.
I believe future U.S. Senator and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles was one of Darden's original investors in that first Red Lobster.
Gary's specialized in seafood and what they served was some of the best around Central Florida.
Their biggest years were in the 1970s to mid 1980s. In its heyday it served 25,000 pounds of shrimp a year and had 90 employees. The restaurant kept expanding until it covered a half acre and seated 400 diners.
A couple of things were happening over which Gary's Duck Inn had no control. First was the sheer number of new chain restaurants opening in the area.
Second was the increasingly bad reputation of South Orange Blossom Trail. In addition to nude bars and raunchy nightclubs, the area experienced a lot of crime including car break-ins at Gary's.
Gary's hired security guards to protect the cars, but customers began avoiding the neighborhood, even those who loved Gary's.
Gary's Duck Inn finally closed in 1994, some 26 years after the grand opening of that first Red Lobster that it inspired.
Today as you go by on SOB Trail you will see a Dollar General and a Seven Eleven store where Gary's used to be.
I still miss it and so am sharing my memories with you.