Tampa's biggest nightclub isn't in Ybor City. It's in Brandon's back yard. The Dallas Bull stands along U.S. 301 east of Tampa, and at 31,000 square feet, it's more than twice the size of Ybor City's largest nightclub. About 20,000 people visit the country-western club each month, from superstars Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn to rabid young fans who groove just as easily to Kanye West as they do to Tim McGraw. • It has 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 — such as building the Dallas Bull into a statewide, and maybe national, brand. • What does it take to make Tampa Bay's biggest nightclub tick? The Brandon & South Shore Times spent a couple of nights behind the scenes to find out. JAY CRIDLIN AND JESSICA VANDER VELDE, PHOTOS BY LUIS SANTANA, Times Staff
After buying the Dallas Bull in 2000, the club's new owners realized they had 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, Cowboys in Atlanta — 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 the financial pinch of the new venue, but at the moment, the club's biggest concern is parking; on busy nights, the adjacent office complex overflows with giant pickups that have nowhere else to park.
The old Dallas Bull wasn't entirely country, but it was close. The new Bull mixes country with pop, hip-hop and dance music, especially upstairs after midnight. 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 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."
The Bull keeps about $95,000 worth of liquor in stock at any given time, from Bud Light to $295-a-bottle Patron Platinum, which they serve at the Bull's nine bars. Meanwhile, a team of 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 MAN IN CHARGE
General manager Marty McIntosh joined the Dallas Bull in 2006, two months before the old place shut down. Before that, he played bass with the Warren Brothers, a Tampa duo that had 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, keeping an eye on the staff, and putting out small fires. By about 11:30 p.m., he can finally 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."
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 — a veteran of big-city nightclubs — 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 tells large parties they can bypass the line by paying double the normal cover charge or buying a full liquor bottle (cost: about $175).
The Bull recently overhauled its security staff and hired Ted Marshall, an Air Force vet and former private eye. Each night he brings 15 to 18 uniformed ex-cops and ex-military to the club. Some stand on 1 1/2-foot risers, scanning the shoulder-to-shoulder masses, silently communicating via flashlights and hand signals. On rounds in the parking lot, Jerry Grocholski and Michael Causey came upon a yellow arch streaming onto the grass up ahead — a sign that someone couldn't wait to get to 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." Neither guard has that authority but the man nonetheless turned red, apologized and climbed inside his white truck.
By 11:30 p.m., there's a steady trickle of clubgoers wrapping 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 alcohol consumption, but otherwise welcomes partiers in their late teens — it helps ensure they'll become loyal customers by the time they turn 21. One underage clubgoer hands Chapman her driver's licence and holds out her clenched fists, ready to be branded with an X on each hand. "I'll draw them as small as I can," says Chapman, who then smiles and proceeds to draw sprawling X's across her hands. She giggles. "Noooooo!" she cries.
The mechanical bull sits on a darkened stage. At 11 p.m., it comes alive. Lights shine down on it, and McIntosh slowly turns a knob on a control box, waking the sleeping machine. For $10, anyone can loosen his or her inhibitions and try to tame the beast, a fixture at the Dallas Bull for years. Evonne O'Bryan, 38, timidly walks up the steps to the stage and whispers loudly to the boy running the controls: "I'm scared." Matt Teuschel replies, "It's not as bad as it looks." She climbs on and mouths the word SLOW!, smiling the whole time, even after she's tossed onto the inflated red mat below.
Sonia Vess arrives at the Dallas Bull each Thursday and Saturday, long before the air is filled with cigarette smoke and the heat from hundreds of sweaty bodies. She's been line dancing for about 17 years, and she meets up twice a week with other regulars for the intermediate lessons with instructor Todd Robishaw. Line dancing is a way of life at the Dallas Bull, especially when tracks like 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 Robishaw comes in. "Step, turn, quarter-touch, quarter-touch, kick-ball-change!" he says into his microphone as he demonstrates the moves. 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 use 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 fiancé, 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.