Anyone plying the Intercoastal Waterway or playing on the islands near New Smyrna Beach in the '90s would have seen her, a bathing-suit clad, suntanned lady with long dark hair piloting a 15-foot flat-bottomed floating galley, offering everything from sodas and snacks to chicken sandwiches and meatball subs.
“At one time I had 48 bathing suits, so nobody saw the same thing twice,” laughs Donna Athearn, a talented New Smyrna resident who wears many hats besides her chef one.
She opened her floating concession stand, called South of the Mouth Café, in 1991, after having it specially built to suite her needs by Scott Porta. She says she was the first licensed food vendor on Florida Waterways. On the 20th anniversary of her floating business, former New Smyrna Beach Mayor Adam Barringer came out to “re-christen” her boat.
She sold the business four years ago, but not before meeting and marrying her husband Marlin in 1995, and the two of them “co-mingling” their businesses. Mr. Athearn has a diving business, so they formed a corporation that had “many diversities,” Ms. Athearn said, including the dive service, food service on the water, the catering business she opened in 1992, and a professional in-house chef service for corporate events. She kept the South of the Mouth name for her catering and chef businesses.
A tour of their New Smyrna residence and her many photo albums provides an illustration of just how diverse “South of the Mouth” has become. Ms. Athearn is an artist with food. She learned to carve fruits and vegetables from her cousin, Mike McKee, who caters to the stars in California. Now Ms. Athearn carves just about anything from food, and creates showy centerpieces for gatherings.
She worked for celebrities, such as the late actor Steve McQueen. She put together a 32-foot display for race car driver Richard Petty’s 25th anniversary of racing for STP, carving a perfect replica of his race car from a watermelon. Her association with racing came naturally. After earning a degree in marketing with a major in music (oh yes, she also sang professionally), her first job was working for Reynolds Corp., a former NASCAR sponsor.
She likes to do theme parties. For one party, she transformed fruits and vegetables into a band ensemble, complete with drums (made from pineapple rings) to guitars (made from squash). Some of her carvings take up to 18 hours to produce. While she is the only “food artist” she knows of in New Smyrna, she also caters delicious meals for events. And she occasionally volunteers her time to events, such as the New Smyrna Beach Holiday Charity Ball.
The Athearns are beekeepers and produce “Marlin’s Bees Products,” including honey and candles. Their yard has many gardens and fruit-bearing trees, which contribute to Ms. Athearns’ chef business.
All of her adventures provided good stories, so she has published two books and is working on a third. The first book she wrote is entitled “Stories off the Menu @ South of the Mouth Café,” and deals with how she put it all together, with the help of her mentor Sam Sapp. The second book is called “More Stories from the Menu @ South of the Mouth Café.”
The third book she is working on is called “Riverboat Crusader,” and tells more stories from the water as well as the land, and how New Smyrna was developed. She explains that after a tornado went through New Smyrna in November 1998, she was helping the USDA Natural Resources team with a river cleanup, and discovered many underlying stories about New Smyrna’s development. This is a many-faceted woman, whose work takes many paths.
The people who bought her boat restarted the floating café business, now called The Native Gig and Grill. For Ms. Athearn, it is her memories still afloat.
“The people you meet on the Intercoastal Waterway are just a plethora of personalities,” she said. “I’ve had a blast with my businesses. It keeps me entertained.”