OKEECHOBEE — Marc and Paulette Bragel prove you don’t have to be born in Okeechobee to be part of the family. Both of them are from New England. Marc is from Danvers, Mass., right near Salem, “Witch City,” he laughed. She was born in Hartford, Conn., but grew up in Palm Beach County. He has been in Florida since 1986.
Chocolate is something dear to Paulette’s heart. She was the retail manager of Hoffman’s Chocolates for about 10 years, a staple in Palm Beach County since 1975. While she worked there, Marc taught himself to work on the machines. As a matter of fact, he said, he still works on the machines for Hoffman’s.
While she was working there, a man named John came to work there, too, and he talked them into going out to Colorado to start a chocolate company called Maroon Bells, named for twin mountain peaks. They packed everything they owned and went to Colorado to start this company. Unfortunately, there was a hostile takeover, and their friend lost everything. They could have stayed on but felt the new owners were so crooked they didn’t want anything to do with it and decided to open a place in Okeechobee.
They came to Okeechobee because Marc’s son and daughter lived here, and he wanted to be close to his family. They loved the town, because it reminded him of where he grew up. As they were driving back to Okeechobee, they discussed the name of the new chocolate shop they would open using two walkie talkies. In Colorado, their favorite place to eat was the Blue Cow Eatery, and Paulette said, “What about naming our place The Brown Cow Sweetery?” He liked the idea, and that’s how the shop was named. They opened the doors on Dec. 22, 2011.
Paulette’s mom, Elanor, grew up on a farm in Connecticut, and they always told her she had huge big brown cow eyes, so the restaurant is a sort of homage to her, they said; but on the other hand, Marc’s dad would probably have killed him for going into the restaurant business, he said. His dad was a cook and always told him to stay out of the restaurant business, he laughed. Marc spent 40 years in the construction industry. He was a carpenter, and he built everything in the restaurant, laid every floor tile, built the shelves.
He worked for Cumberland Farms for 20 years, and just got tired of driving 700-1,200 miles every week. He went to work for Hoffman’s and then they decided to go out on their own. He had learned the cooking end of things from his dad, he explained. Paulette asked him if he likes being his own boss now, and he laughed and said, he is not his own boss, he works for her, to which she replied, “I’m going to need that in writing.”
They have had their ups and down since they opened the store, he said. A month ago, they weren’t sure they were going to make it. They were both working behind the counter, and that is not Marc’s strong suit. In their partnership, he does best working behind the scenes, and she flourishes out front with the customers, they explained. But, with the coronavirus causing an upheaval to the entire universe, they had to make some changes. They kept most of their employees, although two were leaving anyway. Both are working at Publix, so that worked out well for everyone. They did have to cut the hours of the others, though, but they said they all understood. “God bless them. They told us to do whatever we had to do,” said Paulette. Their store hours are shorter right now, and they will probably keep them that way for the time being, although they may stay open until 5 instead of 4, which they are doing now.
They have been open on Sundays during the pandemic, but only to help make ends meet. It has been very hard on them, though, and has not really brought in much revenue. They might do that for a little longer just to help with income, but they said they plan to go back to closing on Sundays at some point, and they believe the people of Okeechobee will understand. Paulette said, “The people of Okeechobee are very understanding, and they know Sunday is a day for worship. The response has always been that we need a day for ourselves and they are OK with that. That is the neat thing about this community,” she said.
Marc said one thing the coronavirus has made easier is that now they can sit back and watch Mass on television and still keep the business open.
Marc volunteers every year as Santa Claus. Each year on June 1 he stops shaving and lets his beard grow so when the children tug on his beard, they are happily surprised to find it is the real thing. He is also on the board of Mainstreet, is a Chamber Ambassador, and they are on the board for the Adam Bryant Regatta, although they were disappointed to say they don’t think it will be possible to stage it this year due to the coronavirus. “We try to give back because the town has given so much to us,” said Marc.
When they first came to town, they spent four hours with Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs. They explained to him what they wanted to do, and he told them about the location where they ended up putting Brown Cow. He told them, “Marc, they will either love you or they will run you out of town, but this town needs something special like this.” It made them feel like it was a challenge, said Marc, and Paulette agreed. “It just took off, and we are still here!”
One thing Paulette said helped them was remembering what someone told her, “People have needs and they have wants.” She explained. The candy and ice cream and things like that are the wants, and those are good things, but they are not needs. If they want to meet the needs, they need to bring in other things like sandwiches and soups and salads, so they did, and it was a huge success. It helped a lot through this virus, too, she said. They have become famous for their chicken salad sandwiches.
The Bragels may not have been born here, but Okeechobee has become their home, and they love everything about it. If you haven’t met them yet, stop by the Brown Cow Sweetery on Park Street and say hello.
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