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.
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