It's 8 p.m. on a Sunday and Victor Sofia settles into his regular spot at the bar at O'Brien's Irish Pub & Grill in Brandon.
Guinness in hand, Sofia says hello to some friends and seems to know everyone. He should. He's been a regular since the pub opened 11 years ago.
"I can come here by myself and still have a great time," he says. "There are no troublemakers, no fights, they have good drinks at a good price and the owners and staff are great."
It's still early, but knots of customers, young and old, already cozy up to their favorite tables, settling in for a few pints and fellowship, the sounds of the Pogues playing in the background.
Servers move swiftly through the crowd, serving up everything from Wee Shepherd's Pie and Mashed Potatoes With Guinness Gravy to Belfast Car Bombs and Black and Tans.
It's a familiar scene at O'Brien's, one of Hillsborough County's most popular Irish hangouts. The parking lot overflows into the adjacent strip mall parking lot every weekend, and the Brandon pub and eatery also does a healthy lunch and dinner business weekdays.
When other bars and restaurants close before their first keg is empty, O'Brien's has expanded from a small bar to two locations, a catering firm and a charter fishing business.
It didn't look so promising at the start.
O'Brien's drew its first pint Oct. 11, 2001 in the psychological and economic aftershock of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
"It was terrible time," Sean Rice recalls. "Everyone was so fearful; everything just kind of shut down. It was pretty dismal but we had started construction in August and there was no going back."
After emigrating from Ireland in 1986, Rice cut his teeth in the highly competitive New York bar scene, running his own construction company by day and bartending at night in Manhattan.
"I learned then that good service, decent food at an honest price, providing an environment that people would feel comfortable in and hard work were the keys to success," Rice says.
He opened his own bar, the Irish Rover, in 1995 but marriage, children and the allure of Florida brought him to Tampa in 2000.
"My wife, Aine, and I already had one child and another on the way and we wanted to get out of the rat race in New York," Rice recalls. "I had vacationed in Tampa a few times and it seemed like a great place to raise a family so we moved."
Rice also had a friend in the bar business in Tampa. Fellow Irishman Bernie O'Brien had opened O'Brien's in Carrollwood in 1991.
Starting out in construction in Tampa and working six days a week, Rice reserved his day off to scout bar locations.
"I looked from Clearwater to Sarasota and found several places but the one that struck with me was Brandon. The town was booming. I could see lots of potential here."
Savings in hand, Rice and his partners (Tony Martin and Bernie O'Brien) opened their 20-seat pub at the corner of Lumsden Road and Kings Avenue in Oak Park Plaza. (Rice later bought out O'Brien.) That first St. Patrick's Day, O'Brien's served 700 customers. This year, the pub will serve 4,000.
The pub's charity work is the keystone of their success, says Jorge Vega, an O'Brien's regular since 2003.
"He is everyone's man when it comes to charity fundraisers here in town and so this has become everyone's bar," says Vega, a salesman who has been selling beer to local bars for 27 years.
"Just about all the events we have here are tied to some kid of charity," says Rob Van Hall, general manager at O'Brien's Brandon for the last six years. "Sean always says 'you give to get' and that has worked out very well here."
Among the groups O'Brien's hosts: Trey Curry Foundation; Ohio State Alumni Association; Black and Gold Club of Brandon, Sammy Sullivan Charities, Sirens of the Golden Sabre, Blue Thong Society and the Krewe of South Shore Marauders.
Irish pubs have always been much more than just a place to drink, Rice says.
"In Ireland, the pub was the town's hub. It was a meeting place to discuss everything from business to politics and everything in between so it's second nature for us to be involved in the community and give back. It's part of the reason you see Irish pubs all over the world."
O'Brien's also has matured, says co-owner Tony Martin. Once primarily a pub where dad could share a pint in the evening with his friends, O'Brien's now wants dad to bring the family.
"We've worked hard over the last few years to make it a lot more family-friendly. Last weekend, we had six parties of 20 come in during the day from local youth soccer teams. The kids can run around, there's a good atmosphere and the parents feel comfortable. It's about taking care of people."
Darrel Wanamaker, a regular at O'Brien's for six years, can attest to that.
For two years, he watched his sister battle brain cancer.
"I would tell her I was coming to O'Brien's after each visit to the hospital. It was the only thing that kept me going," Wanamaker says. "One night, after a tough visit, the bartender handed me a Guinness. She had drawn a heart in the foam. One look at it and I started bawling. 'It looked like you might need that,' she said. That's the kind of place this is."
Kevin Brady can be reached at [email protected]