Northwest Florida’s stunning Emerald Coast is a huge draw for vacationing Texans, with its 26 miles of glass-green waves and white quartz crystal sand. But beachgoers aren’t the only ones drawn to this beautiful area — it’s also attracting a host of innovative entrepreneurs and restaurateurs.
Walton County, which spans Florida’s famous 30A beach neighborhoods up to the Alabama border, was the sixth fastest-growing county in the nation in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Walton County Planning Director Mac Carpenter says the county’s tremendous growth continues and it remains one of the fastest growing in the state.
You might think rapid growth in a popular vacation destination would lead to a decline in the area’s character, but innovators and entrepreneurs are only making Walton County more interesting to visit. Here are a few businesses started by out-of-towners who were drawn to the area and inspired to contribute to the local community.
Santa Rosa Beach, FL
Harrison Holdich, who hails from southeast Texas, grew up vacationing along Florida’s Gulf Coast. He returned in 2019 to co-found Distillery 98 — named in honor of the “original beach highway,” Highway 98 — with his brother-in-law, David Kapitanoff. As a self-proclaimed grain-to-glass microdistillery, they use local farm ingredients to make spirits by hand in small batches.
“It’s hard work but it’s fun work,” says Holditch. As CEO, he runs Distillery 98 with these goals: environmental responsibility and building a close-knit community. “It’s important to support the local people who make this community what it is,” Holditch says. “We want the community to be as much a part of us as we are them.”
Stop by the tasting room and event space to try Distillery 98’s signature vodka, Dune Laker, made with local corn and filtered using a unique Gulf Coast oyster shell filtering system. You can also buy some Half Shell Vodka to take home — it comes packaged in a recyclable cardboard bottle.
YOLO Boards + Bikes
Santa Rosa Beach, FL
While on a camping trip in South Walton’s Grayton Beach State Park, Jeff Archer called his wife at home in New Orleans and told her they had to move there. “The natural beauty was just overwhelming to me,” he says. After relocating, Archer discovered the joy of paddleboarding and co-founded YOLO Board + Bike with fellow outdoor fitness enthusiast Tom Losee.
“Becoming part of the South Walton community has been an honor,” Archer says. And YOLO continues to expand, introducing two new locations last year. “We look forward to the future and providing locals and visitors alike with memorable You-Only-Live-Once products and experiences.”
YOLO offers board and e-bike rentals and sales, plus guided tours like a safari trail ride and a SUP eco-tour. Even beginners can enjoy renting an e-bike to cruise along Timpoochee Trail. This paved trail winds through 12 beach neighborhoods, taking you by state parks, the state forest and 15 rare coastal dune lakes.
DeFuniak Springs, FL
Don’t limit your next Florida visit to the coast — head inland to explore beyond-the-beach destinations like DeFuniak Springs, the county seat of Walton County. Cajun Chef Ernie Danjean of Café Nola will make it worth your while.
Danjean says he grew up in the kitchen, learning to cook Cajun food from his mother and grandmother. He founded Café Nola in 2019 and is delighted to have landed in historic DeFuniak Springs. “Old town America is making a comeback,” he says.
A born community-builder, Danjean may well come to your table and introduce you around. During a course of crawfish étouffée, he introduced our table to fellow diner Tim Jackson, who also happens to be a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who regularly performs at the Florida Chautauqua Theatre in DeFuniak Springs.
He will also want to introduce you to his best dishes, like his French-style beignets. “Everybody says mine are better than Café du Monde and you know what? They right,” says Danjean. And he boasts that his deep-fried bread pudding is “dessert crack that will keep you coming back.” He says, “It will call to you in the night.”
Getting to Walton County
Nonstop flights to Destin-Fort Walton Beach (VPS) are available from Dallas, Houston and Austin, on select days. You can also fly direct from Dallas and Houston to Pensacola International Airport (PNS). If you’d rather drive, it will take about eight and a half hours to get from Houston to Walton County.
Cover photo courtesy TURNER.
Heidi Gollub is an editor who lives in Austin with her family. She grew up bouncing around the globe and now enjoys sharing her love of travel with her own children.