True story: When the Dallas Bull moved into its cavernous new digs in 2006, the club ate the first dollar it ever made. A man inserted the bill into a brand-new pool table, and it gobbled the money without dispensing any balls.
Ever since, the Bull has been giving patrons more than their money's worth.
At 31,000 square feet — twice the size of Ybor's largest nightclub — the 29-year-old country club east of Tampa is unlike any other venue in Tampa Bay. About 20,000 patrons come there each month, from fans of superstars like Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn to those who dig Kanye West as much as they do Tim McGraw.
It's been a busy year for the Bull, with a live concert series, a new VIP lounge and record-breaking summer crowds. But its owners have even bigger plans for the future — like building the Dallas Bull into a statewide, and maybe national, brand.
What does it take to make Tampa Bay's biggest nightclub tick? Tbt* spent a couple of nights behind the scenes to find out.
After buying the Dallas Bull in 2000, the club's new owners realized they'd outgrown their space. So they visited some of the nation's best-known country bars — Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, the Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville — for inspiration. They drew up plans for a $2.5-million, 14,000-square-foot club — a project that swelled to 31,000 square feet and more than $6-million. Owners are still feeling that financial pinch, but at the moment, the club's biggest concern is parking — on busy nights, the adjacent Rivergate office complex overflows with giant pickups that have nowhere else to park.
The Bull keeps about $95,000 worth of liquor in stock at any given time, from Bud Light to $295-a-bottle Patron Platinum. Barbacks shuttle full bottles from the storage room in back to each of the club's nine bars, taking care to measure how many pours are inside each bottle, so the club can track if bartenders are overpouring or nicking shots on the side. Meanwhile, scantily clad "shooter girls" weave through the crowd, selling fruity, chilled alcohol shooters and Jell-O shots for $2, and Jell-O syringes for $3. The girls smile constantly, laugh at unfunny jokes, coyly stroke customers' arms — anything to close a sale. "You gotta flirt for a living," says bartender and shooter chef Albert Rocamora.
The old Bull didn't play just country, but it was close. The new Bull, on the other hand, mixes in a diverse mix of pop, hip-hop and dance tracks, especially after midnight. The more diverse playlist seems heretical to some of the club's old-time loyalists, but DJ Matthew Smith, 26, says younger customers don't distinguish between genres, and will line dance to just about anything. "College kids love to dance," says Smith, who wields a 1-terrabyte hard drive containing 66,000 songs. "They're going to dance whether it's a country song or whether it's a hip-hop song. My goal is to keep the people moving, to keep the girls on the stage, to keep the people drinking."
For two years, the Bull's managers have made corporate sponsorship a top priority, which means ads for car dealers, western wear and firearms stores are strung around the club's 2,400-square-foot dance floor. The new Bull has operated in the red the past couple of years, but co-owner Ed Verner says the club has "rounded the corner" in 2008. And with profitability might come expansion — owners say the club could become a franchise, a la Coyote Ugly or the House of Blues. Verner and co-owner Lewis Surratt Sr. tossed out Orlando, Gainesville, Tallahassee and Jacksonville as potential locations. "But that's probably a year or two down the road," Surratt said.
By 11:30 p.m., there's a trickle of clubgoers wrapped around the building. At the entrance, security guard Jamie Chapman, 28, holds each ID, testing the weight, checking the photo, looking for rubbed-out birth dates. "It's pretty obvious when you get a fake one," he says. He's one of two bouncers who work to ensure the bar keeps its liquor license. The club is tough on underage drinking, but otherwise welcomes partiers in their late teens — it helps ensure they'll become loyal customers when they turn 21. One girl hands Chapman her license and holds out her fists, ready to be branded with an X on each hand. "I'll draw them as small as I can," says Chapman, who smiles and proceeds to draw sprawling X's across her hands. The girl giggles. "Noooooo!" she cries.
Patrick Murray paces in the Bull's elevated VIP area, lighting ivory votive candles, shifting tables and couches, and fussing over all the other details that sometimes slip past his fellow employees. "I work with a bunch of rednecks," he says, smiling. About a month ago, the club hired Murray as VIP manager, with an eye toward improving their "exclusive" experience. Murray books VIP tables and tends to patrons' needs throughout the night. If business is slow, he races outside and recruits large groups to bypass the line by paying double the normal cover charge or buying a full bottle (cost: about $175). "The more I sell," he says, "The more I can make." The Bull's VIP experience just got another big selling point — its in-house liquor store recently reopened as Bar 9, a lounge with a pool table, stripper pole, hi-def TVs and a private bartender.
The man in charge
General manager Marty McIntosh joined the Bull's staff in 2006, two months before the old place shut down. Before that, he played bass with the Warren Brothers, a Tampa duo who used to have a show on CMT. A big, jovial guy with a knack for pleasing people, McIntosh, 40, spends the early hours of the evening cannonballing around the club, fixing and installing equipment and putting out small fires whenever they arise. On Saturday, McIntosh, who has a mail-order minister's license, will even marry a couple who met at the Bull. By 11:30 p.m. most nights, he can finally sit back and relax in his bare-bones office or the celebs-only green room. "Once it gets up and running," he said of the club, "it runs on its own."
Line dancing is a way of life at the Bull, especially when Steve Earle's Copperhead Road or Tracy Byrd's Watermelon Crawl hit the speakers. But not everyone knows the intricate maneuvers that go with each song. That's where instructor Todd Robishaw comes in. "Step, turn, quarter-touch, quarter-touch, kick-ball-change!" he says into his microphone as he demonstrates the moves during an early-evening lesson. The dancers furrow their brows and look down at their feet. Some mumble the counts — 1, 2, 3, 4 — and laugh when they mess up. At the end of the two-hour lesson, they're ready to show off their new moves.
Amber Whyte has been coming to the Dallas Bull since age 14, back when it used to stage teen parties. She met her fianc?, Kenny Thompson, there. So it stands to reason she'd hold her wedding there, too. On Saturday afternoon , Whyte and Thompson will get married at the Bull, with the mechanical bull in full swing for the reception. Another regular, Danielle Jones, 21, is on the dance floor, stomping and shuffling to Cotton-Eyed Joe with at least 100 others. She has a large leg brace on from knee surgery in February, but that doesn't slow her down. It's her 21st birthday. Jones has come to the Dallas Bull since she was 18, showing up once or twice a week. She even met her boyfriend of one year, Doug Hunter, at the club.
The man in charge of keeping clubgoers safe is Ted Marshall, an Air Force veteran who runs a security firm out of Vandenberg Airport. Each night he brings 15 to 18 uniformed ex-cops and ex-military to the club to watch for signs of trouble — a sudden quiet, a lot of squawking, one rowdy drunk looking for some action. Some stand on 1 1D2-foot risers around the club, communicating via flashlights and hand signals. Others patrol the parking lot in search of mischief. On one round, Michael Causey saw a yellow arch streaming onto the grass up ahead — someone couldn't wait for the bathroom. "Sir, get it inside your pants," Causey said loudly. "If I get a picture of that, I'll have to register you as a sexual offender." The man turned red, said sorry and climbed inside his truck.