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Covid killed Skipper’s Smokehouse, owner Tom White says

Bill DeYoung



Air Force pilot Tom White purchased Skipper’s Smokehouse in 1980, and under his watch it became a premier live music spot for the entire Tampa Bay area. With an outdoor stage (the “Skipperdome”) under the oaks and a reputation for casual, laid-back music-making and an oyster bar well-stocked with cold beer, Skipper’s had a funky vibe that suited lovers of reggae, blues and world music well.

It was also a destination restaurant, with indoor seating, if one preferred, away from the drums and the amplifiers.

White shut the North Tampa icon down this week and put it on the market.

“Forty years is a long time,” White said Wednesday on The Catalyst Sessions. “And I think, pretty much enough for someone to be in one business.”

The pandemic, he admitted, was a key factor in his decision to let the place go. “We looked at it from many different angles. We tried to survive once we fought the banks for our PPP, once they got through paying the big boys.”

Closing, back in the spring, was rough. “My employees were all hurting then,” White said. “Our whole focus was trying to let everybody survive and put food on the table, and put roofs over the heads. That was very important.”

Skipper’s briefly re-opened at limited capacity, and with outside al fresco dining only, but fear of the virus and a noticeable slowdown in business made White close again after just five weeks. There were no bands. And the PPP money ran out.

At the end of the day, he said, those factors, and a mosquito swarm of small creditors like music “administrators” ASCAP and BMI tying to get “blood from a turnip,” made keeping the business going into an uncertain future simply too frustrating.

“We kept thinking and hoping it was going to get better – but it’s not and it hasn’t,” White explained. “All of our major bands postponed their shows into 2021 … and even the ones who were early 2021 are now moving into late 2021.

“I didn’t want anybody to get sick, I didn’t want to get sick, I didn’t want the employees to get sick. The nut was too big to make it really happen for us.”

White says his employees and the Skipper’s customer base are like family, and of course he’s sorry to disappoint them, but moving on seemed to be the only prudent choice.

During the interview, he discusses Skipper’s reputation as “that hippie bar,” his favorite live shows from over the decades, and his fervent belief that whoever ends up buying the place should “keep the brand” – in other words, retain the name and the vibe, and the food, and the stage. “I don’t think it would be smart not to do that,” he said. “With 40 years of reputation, you go in and make it Joe Bongo’s Smokehouse, or whatever, who knows what that is?

“But they do know what Skipper’s Smokehouse is.”

Thursday on The Catalyst Sessions: Gulfport ceramic artist Brenda McMahon on the First Friday Art Walk, which returns this week with an entirely new and fresh approach.

Streaming weekdays at 7 p.m. on the Catalyst Facebook page. All episodes are archived on our YouTube channel.


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    D.E. Herndon

    October 2, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Hey Tom! For those who don’t remember, Skippers stage was the small beer stand past the big oak in front facing the entrance which was just a walkway. To the right was a cast iron fire ring where at the end of the night we burned our boxes and sat around playing music, me on harp,(D.E. Herndon) and the guitar(David Dingman). We helped Tom and Andy around the place kinda like bar backs for a bite and a chance to play. The was NO Skipper Dome, just a ring of old boat hulls surrounded the place like a fence. This was 1980 and Dave and I were attending HCC. I’d like to thank Tom and Andy for those memories and for me many after that performing with Rock Bottom and the Cutaways, Blind Willie and Patsy Clines lead guitarist. Man that was a great and wonderful time and place, thank you Tom and Cricket for making my life more full through you hard work and tolerance of our crazy selves.

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