Passion + Perseverance

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The menu at Maxine’s on Shine should come with a disclaimer.
Somewhere below the Fried Green Tomatoes and Crab Cakes or the Skillet Lasagna, it should be noted that this funky juke joint restaurant on Shine Avenue, in downtown Orlando, has come close to shuttering its doors many times. It should be noted that owners Kirt and Maxine Earhart almost lost everything, including each other. And — maybe in boldface — it also should note why they are still standing, both professionally and personally: passion and perseverance.

Every day that they open their doors is a tribute to their stick-to-it-iveness. They’ve made it to year nine, managing to survive five years of daily uncertainty. It did them a great deal of good in some ways. It prepared them, as best as possible, for another challenging twist: a global pandemic.

“When Kirt would wake up, he’d go, ‘Bring it on. What have you got for me?’’’ Maxine said. “So, when COVID happened, it was like, ‘Babe, we got this. We’re going to make it work.’ He never had any hesitation.”

Forced to shut down for a month, they amped up their takeout service for two months, and then they re-opened at limited capacity. They made creative use of their small parking lot by converting it into an outdoor space called “Islands of Dining,” placing cabanas, tables and chairs on wooden platforms. They strategically placed mannequins to keep customers socially distanced at the bar.

Maxine Earhart

Maxine—a former Miss New York—is the face of the place that bears her name. Her face (now masked) is on the logo. She is the one you will see greeting every customer. She will mix and mingle with old friends or newbies, and eventually she will take a picture to post on the restaurant’s Facebook page. There are 95,000 pictures on her Cloud. It’s very much her style, much like her eclectic wardrobe and signature red glasses.

All of this reflects Kirt’s vision. When his wife initially pushed back on all the attention focused on her, he pushed back.

“Oh, Honey, you’re a natural. This is going to be great,” he said.

And it has been. The restaurant, nestled in the middle of a residential community off Shine Avenue in Orlando’s Colonialtown neighborhood, has earned yearly rave reviews for serving up one of the best brunches in town, otherwise known as the “Rejuiceanation Brunch.”

Indoors and out, the vibe is, as Maxine calls it, “sexy, comfortable and delicious.” You will see nudes on the wall, courtesy of resident artist Panther Brunotte. You may also find a piece of Tampa Bay Bucs memorabilia on the wall, an homage to Kirt’s favorite NFL team. There’s an outdoor mural that reads: “Love You to the Moon and Back,” a favorite among customers.

Also, there are the mannequins. Cracker Barrel, it is not.

“I want that cozy kind of sexy vibe,” Maxine said. “And I want people to feel comfortable.”

Kirt Earhart

While Maxine is front and center, Kirt holds up the business end and counts the money. It was his vision to start the restaurant, a vision that wasn’t in sync with his first marriage. Kirt’s soon-to-be ex-wife had moved out six days prior to meeting Maxine at the Copper Rocket in Maitland. Eugene Snowden and the Legendary JC’s were playing that night in October, 2001.

She looked at the wine menu and thought it was trash. He said he was the guy who put the wine menu together. And away they went. It was a bit of a rocky road for a few years. Maxine had a toddler from a previous relationship. Kirt struggled with the conflicting vibe of whether he was in a rebound relationship or whether it was true love. They broke up. They made up. Rinse and repeat.

Their ability to ride out those storms prepared them for the dynamics of opening a restaurant. It’s a great business to be in if you want to lose money. About 60% of restaurants fail within the first year of operation, and 80 percent% shut down within the first five years.

They opened Maxine’s on Jan. 6, 2012. Cue second act of “rocky road.”

They hoped they would have a good weekend so they could make payroll. They scrambled when one of their servers got a DUI or their chef cut his finger. They woke up every morning wondering, “What next?”

“We struggled,” Maxine, 61, said. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, five years. If you’re in business five years, you’ll start to see…’ In five years, I was like, ‘Babe, can we please just sell the restaurant? We could get jobs at McDonald’s and make more money than we’re making now.’ And he’d be like, ‘No.’

“We were driving cars with no air conditioning in Florida, because we couldn’t afford to get our air conditioning fixed, because it was like $1,800. And there was an electric bill here or maybe even more than that. But I’m just saying we couldn’t. It was very difficult.”

But they persisted—much like their personal life, which bleeds over into their professional obligations for much of the day. They moved in together in 2005 and married in 2015. The ceremony was at the restaurant, of course. And they had to do it a second time because the notary public, who initially married them, did so with an expired license. The party went on, since everyone, including the lovely couple, was oblivious to that fact.

They have their dustups, like everyone else does, and their coping mechanisms. Kirt, 55, has a bush he passes on the walk from the parking lot to the restaurant, and that marks the spot when he shuts down the personal stuff and makes it strictly business.

Maxine has her own marker. It’s in the bathroom of their Maitland home. In her own letters, in orange ink, it reads: “Apologizing does not always mean you

are wrong and the other person is right. It just means you value your relationship more than your ego.”

It’s not easy because their relationship is in the proverbial bubble. There’s no getting out, even though they take the occasional separate day off together.

“It’s important that you have your shared time as a couple, and then you have your time to identify as the individual that you are,” Kirt said. “Compound that with being people that you are, while working through a crowd where levels of expectations are high. And you have to believe and trust in your relationship with one another, knowing that everything that you do and say is on full display to the public.

“So, it is tricky at times. Because we both have our own ways of how we handle situations or the way that we talk. But we’ve known that for years, and that’s who we’ve become. We understand and appreciate one another.”

It’s the human connection that binds people to Maxine’s on Shine. It’s the personal and professional connection that binds Kirt and Maxine to each other.

Kirt and Maxine

It’s the human connection that binds people to Maxine’s on Shine. It’s the personal and professional connection that binds Kirt and Maxine to each other.

You won’t find that anywhere on the menu, either. But all you have to do is look around. The eyes don’t lie.

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