The owner of Grills restaurants has taken his childhood hobbies and transformed them into a successful career as a restaurateur.

“I was simply following a vision, so the risk wasn’t so much a deterrent even though there were obstacles to overcome.” – Joe Penovich

As a student at the University of Central Florida about to get his degree in finance, 21-year-old Joe Penovich started to panic. The thought of going to work in an office, and in a suit and tie, scared him to death. He knew he needed to find a way to use his finance education to find a career a little more conducive to his Florida, water-centric upbringing. He prayed for guidance, and eventually, it came.

Penovich grew up on Merritt Island with a love for being on the water. Trips to the Keys, fishing and scuba diving filled his life from a young age. His fishing and diving hobbies grew into commercial fishing and diving jobs during high school and into college.

“Quite frankly, I was used to fishing and flip flops,” he said. “I managed to get through my degree in finance at UCF, but I was really terrified at the thought of spending life in an office crunching numbers.”

After college, he began to run a small charter boat, as well as continue the commercial fishing and diving. He also began experimenting with cooking fish on the grill. The idea to open a restaurant that specialized in grilled fish actually came to him in a vision. For the next 10 years, he wrestled with the idea but did not have a clue as to how or when it would become a reality.

And that’s when fate intervened.

By 1994 his charter business had grown to include a party fishing boat called the Ocean Obsession. It was at this time he was given an opportunity to purchase the Port Canaveral marina, now called Sunrise Marina, where the charter boats were kept. It was an incredible opportunity, but he needed to come up with some serious cash in order to take over the mortgage on the property. Enter a couple from Indiana who charter fished with him…

“I told them about the opportunity, and they said they could give me $100,000 in a week… an unsecured loan,” said Penovich. “This was an incredible generosity that allowed the formula to work for the bank. And three years later, they loaned me a couple hundred grand to build a covered deck on the marina, which was actually the first incarnation of Grills. I really believe this was all in response to the fervent prayer of that 21-year-old kid.”

Grills Waterfront Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar soon became one of the busiest restaurants in all of Brevard County. A variety of grilled fish recipes along with a casual waterfront atmosphere worked, just like Penovich thought it would. He opened a second location, Grills Riverside Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar, in Melbourne in 2010. Built during a major downturn in the economy, the second location saw its challenges but opened to much success.

“It was a case of doors opening that made sense to walk through,” explained Penovich. “I was simply following a vision, so the risk wasn’t so much a deterrent even though there were obstacles to overcome. Did I have sleepless nights? Yes, but we’ve found a good niche with these restaurants, and it’s working out great.”

Penovich’s third endeavor, Grills Lakeside Seafood Deck and Tiki Bar, recently opened on Lake Fairview in Orlando, and like his first two restaurants, things fell into place that made it possible to secure the great location and open yet another popular culinary destination.

“The idea of grilling fish was the impetus for all of this,” he asserted. “I played with grill recipes for a long time. We were the first restaurant in the area to cook medium rare tuna on a grill. People had never eaten fish this way, but it caught on eventually and now they love it.”

Penovich likens eating at one of his restaurants to a mini vacation. Eating delicious fish on the waterfront, at an affordable price … well, it just does not get any better than that.

“I love the water, and I love fishing, and this is what has motivated me all these years … to provide a great dining experience in this kind of setting,” he said. “And this translates down to all of our employees. We all love to hear people say, ‘This was the best dining experience we’ve ever had,’ which we have heard quite a bit.”

Penovich credits many people for the success he has experienced. Chris Herrnkind, his general manager, has been with him from the start, and Robin Roark, his comptroller, has allowed the business to grow and succeed. His son, Daniel, a culinary/business school graduate who interned and worked at numerous restaurants in California, Providence and Europe, committed to the family business a few years ago, and Penovich could not be happier.

“It wasn’t something I encouraged or expected, but it would be impossible to verbalize how blessed and excited I am about Daniel being part of this,” concluded Penovich. “And that’s how I feel about this whole journey; I’ve been truly blessed from the start.” ◆

I love the water, and I love fishing, and this is what has motivated me all these years… to provide a great dining experience in this kind of setting.