TAMPA — Hulk Hogan has added a new line to his resume: semi-retired professional wrestler, actor, television personality and now Tampa restaurateur.
Hogan's Beach will make its debut with a huge masquerade party New Year's Eve, but Hogan (aka Terry Bollea) and partner Ben Mallah gave the Tampa Bay Times a sneak preview Saturday.
Located at the Best Western Bay Harbor hotel on the Courtney Campbell Parkway in a space that used to house Crabby Bill's, the 20,000-square-foot restaurant has many moving parts, from a mechanical shark ride to a white sand beach. Still, what will set it apart from nearby waterfront restaurants like Whiskey Joe's is the 12-time world champ himself.
Over the noise of earth movers smoothing the sand beyond a thicket of new tiki huts, Bollea expounded on his expectations for the 360-seat restaurant and bar.
"It's going to be Jimmy Buffet's [Margaritaville] times 10; Hooters times 10. It's a logical extension of the Hogan brand, with my image and likeness. We're looking for something like Winter the Dolphin. In 36 years I've become so tangible to the public, and not just Americans. We have a chance to have an international draw."
When asked about his ongoing role in the restaurant, he drew parallels between fact and fiction.
"I see myself almost like a general manager, creatively. I play a fake general manager on Impact Wrestling. But this is for real."
To execute Bollea's vision, chef Robert Uzzillia was hired as food and beverage director for the hotel and restaurant. A Culinary Institute of America grad most recently involved in the Venue in St. Petersburg, Uzzillia has fashioned three separate menus: a 30-item sushi bar, a second indoor menu of upscale steaks and seafood, and a third, more casual menu for the patio of Frenchy's-style Florida favorites.
"I talked to [Bollea] a lot about it," says Uzzillia. "He didn't want to cheese it up on the menu. So we stayed away from crazy wrestling terms. We didn't go the Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock Cafe route."
Hogan's Beach is not Bollea's first foray into the restaurant business.
"I was married to Linda for 23 years and she had the French Hen in Bellair Bluffs for five years," he says. "And before that I had a restaurant in the Mall of America called Pasta Mania. But having a restaurant all the way in Minnesota was tough. When the cat's away, the mice play, you know?"
The choice of location has special meaning to both Hogan's Beach partners. For Mallah, a hotelier and developer, the space represents a challenge.
"I like to rehab places. I like to take something old and beaten up and bring it back to life," he said. As to how the partnership with Bollea came about, he says, "We had talked about opening a Hogan's Gym. We still may do that. But I had this idea. I figured, hey, we've got a celebrity in town. And he loves this town, I love this town."
For Bollea, it's the Crabby Bill's backstory that resonates.
"There's a history with this property. George Steinbrenner had this property and it was the hottest thing in town. Then George passed away. We're going to show that there's life after life here."
It definitely promises to be lively. With volleyball courts, fire pits, a live music stage (first scheduled band: Sister Hazel for Valentine's weekend), beach cabanas and huge deck, it requires a substantial staff, with 30 hired in the kitchen and 50 for the front of the house. And if Bollea gets his way, they'll be joined by a film crew.
He hopes the restaurant will be the set for a new reality television show.
"I just went out to Los Angeles to pitch Hogan's Beach. CMT is very interested. It would be like a controlled sound stage, with the pool, bar, volleyball and live music."
When asked for the "elevator pitch" for the show, Bollea was succinct.
"It's Bay Watch, Muscle Beach and Cheers all in one."
But then he added, before graciously standing for cell phone pictures with a growing crowd of fans, "I'm not bringing the cameras into my house this time. I'm not going to make that mistake again."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley.