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World of Beer fulfills friends' dream

WESTCHASE

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 changed Scott Zepp's life. A high school teacher and baseball coach, Zepp had purchased a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Pensacola Beach.

"I had yet to sleep in it," Zepp said. "I was still fixing it up."

Two weeks into his renovations, the house was destroyed. Gulf Breeze, a city he had called home most of his life, was porch-high in water.

"I was already thinking about doing other things," said Zepp. "I cashed in my 401(k) and I didn't know what I was going to do. But if it was going to happen, I knew I had to do it then."

Four years later, Zepp is living what was once an idea simmering in the back of his mind. He and his best friend, Matthew LaFon, also of Gulf Breeze, serve up pints of barley malt in a cozy and friendly atmosphere to what has become a community of friends.

Zepp and LaFon are the owners of World of Beer in Westchase, a suburban pub that offers nearly 600 beers and has plans to open seven franchises in Hillsborough, Pinellas' and Pasco counties in the next few years. The Trinity Town Center location in Pasco County is due to open in the first quarter of 2009 and a Tampa Palms location in the second quarter. Later in 2009, a World of Beer is slated for South Tampa.

"Matt and I always talked about opening up a place where people could have a good time,'' said Zepp, 34. "We decided to see what we could do."

Zepp, a second baseman in high school, hoped to be selected in the Major League Baseball draft. But pro teams turned a blind eye, so Zepp used his passion to get an education degree from Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama. He played ball for three years and earned All-American honors before graduating in 1997.

A self proclaimed Florida beach boy, Zepp moved back to the Panhandle to teach science at Pensacola Catholic High School. He was assistant coach to a baseball team that won a state championship in 2003 and was runner-up in the following year.

"I learned to teach kids more about life," Zepp said. "But I also learned that I wasn't passionate about teaching."

Then Ivan rumbled ashore.

Zepp and LaFon knew each other in high school. But it wasn't until Zepp moved back to the Gulf Breeze area after college that the aspiring businessmen became friends.

LaFon, 32, had graduated from the University of West Florida in 2002 with a marketing and management degree. He met his wife, Stacy, also from Gulf Breeze, and at one point ran a fish market with his brother. LaFon had no plans of ever leaving home.

"We actually shared mutual friends," LaFon said. Gulf Breeze, population 6,500, is a close-knit community. "We had similar interest in golf and business."

While hanging out with friends the two would critique bars and restaurants, sharing what they liked and what they didn't.

"We didn't want your average bar but we couldn't put our finger on it for many years," said LaFon, whose marketing job brought him to Tampa seven years ago.

With his 401(k) money in hand after Ivan, Zepp called his friend.

"I'm coming to Tampa," Zepp recalled. "It's now or never."

The first eight to nine months were hard. Zepp didn't have a job and things were not materializing as quickly as he had hoped.

"I was getting to the point were I was questioning my decision," he said.

Then in November 2005, he and LaFon, who continued to work at Ritz Safety designing safety systems, got together. They opened Courtside Wine and Spirits, an upscale liquor store, in Pinellas County's Feather Sound.

"That's where I realized I wanted to open up a beer bar," Zepp said. "All of a sudden, I saw that there were 500 to 600 beers out there and I wanted to create a place where people would come and enjoy beer."

He became a student.

Connecting with Savino Sterlacci, 17-year owner of Clearwater's World of Beer store, he learned about various kinds of beer.

While still considering a move back to Gulf Breeze, Zepp decided he and LaFon could take another chance.

They sold the wine and beer store and entered into a partnership with Sterlacci to open World of Beer in Westchase Town Center.

Zepp's mother put up her home for some of the capital. LaFon put up his home. His parents did the same.

"It was a little scary," said Beverly Zepp, who works in the guidance office at Gulf Breeze High School. But she trusted him. "I told him, even though you are my son, I wouldn't put it up if I didn't believe in you."

Overcoming early opposition from parents at nearby Westchase Elementary School, World of Beer opened in January 2007 at 9524 W Linebaugh Ave.

Today, the place bubbles with loyal customers drinking beers from every conceivable corner of the globe: Tusker from Nairobi, Kenya, and Okocim from Poland.

"When I first walked in, it was pretty overwhelming," said Bryan Mayland, 34, who lives in Tampa. "And for someone who doesn't know beer, it can be pretty intimidating. But the staff knows a lot of the beers and they make great suggestions."

In addition to the regular inventory, new brews are rotated in every month.

Zepp and LaFon have since purchased Sterlacci's share of the business, and exclusive rights to the name World of Beer. Their parents' homes are no longer on the line. LaFon quit his job and works full time on the business development side of the company.

And on May 7, 2007, he became the father of son. Evan.

"I am absolutely happy and there has been a 100 percent increase in my quality of life," LaFon said. "To be able to work side by side with my best friend and able to take something you believe in and make it grow, it doesn't get any better."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.

>>AT A GLANCE

WOBtoberfest

World of Beer sponsors its second annual beer and music event, WOBtoberfest. The two-day event starts at 3 p.m. today and at noon Saturday. Admission is $5 for adults; 12 and under get in free. Held in an empty lot adjacent to the 9524 W Linebaugh Ave. pub, the festival includes bands, face painting, food and children's games. Proceeds support charities through the Westchase Foundation. For more information, call (813) 852-2337 or go to www.worldofbeerusa.com.

World of Beer fulfills friends' dream 10/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 4:14pm]
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