Twenty-eight years ago, pals Gary Taylor and Tim Sherrell assumed their usual position at the Stadium sports bar in New Port Richey to watch football and drink Budweisers.
Florida's economy had hit the wall (sound familiar?) and Taylor's real estate job wasn't paying the bills. Sherrell's income seemed even more precarious. He pumped gas for one of the last remaining "service'' stations.
Typically, Taylor didn't allow their situation to dampen his mood. "He told his jokes,'' Sherrell recalled. "Gary always had the whole place laughing. I told him he was a comedian in his first life.''
The beers flowed. Somebody complained the nearest decent barbecue was an hour away in Tampa. "Hey,'' Taylor said, "we should open a restaurant.''
"We thought we'd sell a lot of beer and maybe a little barbecue,'' Sherrell recalled Tuesday as the noon crowd filtered in to the original Pit Boss Bar-B-Q restaurant on Little Road. "We had no idea.''
No question, they solved the dilemma of having to drive so far for good slow-cooked pork ribs. But more important, they eagerly and regularly gave back to their community, providing free food for charity fundraisers and sponsoring Little League and other sports teams. They earned widespread respect, particularly for their volunteer work at the Angelus, a home in Hudson for people with severe disabilities.
And in all those 28 years, business never got in the way of friendship.
"We were brothers,'' Sherrell said, tears in his eyes.
On Friday night, Marty Taylor said goodnight to her husband of 46 years as he dozed on the couch trying to make it to the end of the Cotton Bowl football game. When she woke up Saturday morning, she found him on the floor. He was 64. Taylor suffered from pulmonary disease, the result of decades of smoking. But he seldom missed a day of work, right up to the day he died.
The news spread fast. Pit Boss closed for the weekend, a wreath and note on the door. One of his friends tried to ease the pain, joking that Taylor would have been mad if he knew they were closing on a busy weekend.
"That was Gary,'' his wife said.
They met as students at Tampa Catholic High School. She was a senior and a year older, not particularly interested in a younger boy. But when he set his sights on something, she said, he didn't give up. That same competitive spirit drove him to become the school's star quarterback and set records in basketball.
Gary and Marty got married right out of school and soon had two daughters, Melissa and Tracy. He worked for a diaper service, drove a UPS truck and worked at a finance company that transferred him to New Port Richey where his father, John, served as vice president of a local bank.
Taylor did well at all those jobs, his wife said, but Pit Boss became his passion — and his second home. "He loved going into the restaurant,'' Marty said. "Most of the people who work there have been there pretty much from the beginning. They are like family.''
The walls on the original Pit Boss reflect the joy Taylor found from his work. He and Sherrell got to know dozens of celebrities who performed each year with country music legend Charlie Daniels to raise money for the Angelus. Their autographed pictures reflect warm wishes and appreciation.
Pit Boss also catered a Major League Baseball legends golf tournament, so many of those framed pictures show the likes of Brooks Robinson and Dave Winfield chomping on ribs at the restaurant. Steve Spurrier, the Glazers and several Tampa Bay Bucs found their way to Pit Boss, along with a young Jeb Bush. Taylor gave him a Pit Boss shirt for his dad and got a nice note in return from the White House.
Meeting celebrities thrilled the partners, but most of their benevolence over the years was directed to smaller, less-noticed events. This earned Pit Boss the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's award for best small business in 1994. In 2003, Taylor was crowned King Pithla, an annual award during Chasco Fiesta for exemplary community service. Last year Pit Boss earned a similar honor on National Philanthropy Day.
"People know they can count on us for a good cause,'' Sherrell said. "That won't change. Gary would want us to carry on, and so we will. But we will miss him.''