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Old friends rally to revive a shuttered restaurant

BRANDON

The old friends walked into the shuttered confines of the Clubhouse Sports Bar on Kingsway Avenue and toasted their new ownership of the family restaurant.

They could have easily celebrated into the night, but instead, Jorge Sanz, Stacy Lester and Carolinn Gieseking went to work.

"We had paint in our hair and dirt on our faces," Gieseking said.

With a little help from some professionals, they would spend the next six weeks putting in new ceiling panels, a new floor, new bar stools and new televisions. They cleaned the wood paneling, power-cleaned the kitchen, refurbished booths and expanded the game room.

They remodeled and retooled, and with the help of consultant and former Tadpole's owner Terry Haley, they cut the menu in half. The results? A "wow" factor for customers who have arrived in droves since the grand reopening in June. Rays fans come in to watch the first-place team and youth sports parents relax after practice. People swear by the wings, buffalo mozzarella sticks, buffalo chips and the signature appetizer — garlic pinwheels. On Wednesday nights, folks flock to see a live band.

Full parking lots well into the night are a clear indication people aren't coming to the plaza just to shop at Sweetbay.

"I'm not surprised because this is a great community," Sanz said. "But I am surprised we were able to get everyone back and get some new people coming in."

But this is more than a story about a resurgent restaurant. It's a tale of faith, friendship, family and community.

Sanz, Gieseking and Lester bonded through long days with the Brandon Lions Youth Football and Cheerleading organization. Gieseking and Lester had been friends before bringing their sons to the league, and Sanz coached their kids for years along with his own son.

The friends became business partners practically overnight. As soon as Lester learned the Clubhouse had closed up, she planted the seeds and the idea started growing.

In less than two weeks, they assumed ownership, not certain about what to expect but confident they had the skills to re-energize the place.

Lester, a 20-year server and manager at the original Beef O' Brady's on Kings Avenue, had front-line restaurant experience. Gieseking once worked as a co-owner of the old Newks across from the St. Pete Times Forum, and also could call upon the expertise of her husband, Bill, the longtime marketing director for Pepin Distributing.

Sanz didn't know the restaurant business, but as an information systems manager for federal court, he had ideas about Internet marketing and management. His wife, Remie, whose roots go back to a legendary blues bar in Washington, D.C., also infused the plan.

"I think we all brought something different to the table," Sanz said.

Of course, with any business venture, it took a little courage. Lester walked away from the comfort of Beef's and owners who treated her like family.

"But then someone brought to my attention a saying: Believe in yourself," Lester explained. "And that's what I went on."

With her son going off to Valdosta State on a football scholarship, Gieseking had newfound time.

"I said I would never do this again, and here I am," Gieseking said with a laugh. "Just shoot me in the head now."

Sanz may have had the easiest decision because of how much he believed in Gieseking and Lester.

They're still finding their way after two months but through it all, they remain close.

"We all agreed we wouldn't let anything come between our friendship, and we haven't," Giese­king said.

In the end, the "new" Clubhouse shows elbow grease can not only bring new energy to an old favorite, it can enliven a community longing for a simple place to gather and have fun.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.

Old friends rally to revive a shuttered restaurant 08/21/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 11:12am]
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