Rob Oliverio: Steward of the Keys’ Backcountry
Rob Oliverio traded life as a road warrior, a corporate manager in his early 20s, launching House of Blues openings in Boston, New Orleans and Los Angeles, for life as an eco-entrepreneur and owner of Key West’s Mellow Ventures, with backcountry eco-tours, a café, nine boats and 30 employees.
When Oliverio was a young boy, his uncles captivated him with stories about the Florida Keys’ bohemian lifestyle during the 1980s. He even had a nautical-themed bedroom containing conch shells that were souvenirs from his uncles.
After high school in a Boston suburb, instead of enlisting in the military as planned, Oliverio opted to backpack solo throughout Europe to informally study art and architecture. Ultimately, he intended to teach art.
He came to Key West in 1994 after a vacation road trip in a van with a dog and a girl he had met in Europe. He stayed three years, moved to San Francisco and returned to Key West permanently after a year away.
Oliverio owned two bike shops, Eaton Street Bikes and Recycle, before a motorcycle accident landed him on his back. Staring at hospital ceiling tiles for a month, he realized that what he really wanted to do was get out on the water.
In 2013 he opened Mellow Ventures, an eco-friendly charter boat company offering custom excursions to the backcountry, including day trips to the Marquesas Keys, from locations on North Roosevelt Boulevard and William Street. His Mellow Café and Gastropub serves vegan fare, exotic meats and craft beer. His clientele is about 75% local residents.
Now 48 years old, Oliverio lives with his 15-year-old daughter Bella and dogs Lowka and Riki behind Key West’s historic Christian Science Church & Reading Room, which he’s personally restoring.
This summer Oliverio plans to unveil two off-the-grid vessels for overnight accommodations, or “outposts,” built on 50-foot-long hulls. He plans to create eco-vacation packages with on-the-water stays, healthy meals and eco-experiences.
Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Keys and why?
Rob Oliverio: Seeking adventure in my early 20s brought me west to California and east to Europe, but when I drove south from Boston to Key West, I knew I had found home.
KT: What aspects of the Keys’ environment or way of life matter most to you?
RO: Key West is a great little island. I love our sense of community and how our Island cherishes the beauty surrounding us. The island vibe is laid-back, family- and community-oriented, all appealing to me. I like that we are a small community where everybody seems to know everybody else.
KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?
RO: I've always been an eco-minded individual, but being surrounded by the ocean, the tropical landscape and island atmosphere makes you appreciate our environment even more. When my daughter was born, I knew that I wanted to do whatever I could to protect our environment.
KT: How does that passion influence your business?
RO: With our eco-tours and café, we incorporate eco-friendly choices whenever possible. We use organic food sourced locally, local sustainably harvested fish and exotic meats, and feature vegetarian and vegan items on our menu. Our connection with community is very important, from local vendors to local artists to local musicians in our café. Our small, custom eco-tours allow tourists to be up close with the beauty of our backcountry. Our knowledgeable captains incorporate a learning experience in every tour.
KT: What are some ways personally or through work that you connect with or help to protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?
RO: Mellow Ventures has sponsored ocean cleanups, allowing participants to enjoy a free paddleboard rental as our thank you in exchange for cleaning trash from our oceans and beaches. We also campaign for safer, cleaner cruise ships, a cause that is dear to my heart.
KT: What keeps you energized, challenged or focused on your path?
RO: My daughter is my biggest focus. She inspires me to want to do whatever I can to pass on a healthy environment for her to enjoy for years to come.
KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?
RO: I hope to leave this earth in better condition than I found it. I hope to inspire this passion in others. Our personal connection with tourists on our tours gives us the unique opportunity to educate them about the wildlife and environment that drives our passion. Our mission is that tourists leave with a sense of appreciation for the beauty and community of the island.
KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?
RO: I want people to fall in love with the Florida Keys the way I did when I first arrived. I want them to see everything that Mother Earth provides for us and how it is important to protect and respect the beauty of our islands.
KT: What's your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?
RO: I love getting out on the water. Being one with nature is how I find calm and balance. I love paddleboarding because it allows me to get up close and personal with the creatures and environment of our backcountry.
Oliverio, an eco-minded individual, says being surrounded by the ocean, the tropical landscape and island atmosphere makes him appreciate the Keys environment even more.
Key West’s Mellow Ventures specializes in backcountry eco-tours.