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Bonefish Grill founder has love of speed

Chris Parker was always in a hurry.

At St. Petersburg High, he spent half a day in school and half a day following business people around to learn their secrets of success. He skipped college and went straight to work. By the time he was 34, he was co-founder of the popular Bonefish Grill restaurant chain.

"He always knew what he wanted," recalled high school classmate Artie Crespo, who grew up with Parker in St. Petersburg. "He's always wanted to be in restaurants. He's self-made."

Parker, 37, disappeared into the chilly waters of Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon when a custom-made 36-foot racing boat he was piloting flipped over. Two passengers in the boat were rescued after the 2 p.m. accident, but hours of fruitless searching failed to turn up the missing pilot. He was not wearing a life jacket.

A dashing figure with tousled blond hair and devilish blue eyes, Parker and future partner Tim Curci first joined forces and fates when they were both working as managers for the Hops Restaurant and Brewery chain.

Parker was a veteran of 50 restaurant openings, while Curci was a chef who had trained at the Culinary Institute of America. They came up with a concept for a new kind of seafood restaurant, one that they called "polished casual."

At the time, most seafood restaurants were festooned with nets and old ship's wheels. Parker and Curci aimed for a more upscale, uptown image, with slick, snazzy graphics and table settings. After considering and rejecting names like Big Eyed Tuna, they settled on Bonefish Grill, with its distinctive skeletal logo.

They opened their first Bonefish Grill on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg in January 2000. For the first year and a half Curci and Parker fileted the fish themselves to become as familiar with their product as possible.

Before long, Bonefish drew such crowds that it sparked the restaurant boom along a street that had previously been known more for its pawnshops and motels. In 2001 they opened their second Bonefish in Sarasota.

They said then that they hoped to open five or 10 more, and then sell out to a larger chain. But the concept proved so popular that by August 2001, the powerful Outback Steakhouse agreed to a 50-50 joint venture with the partners to finance opening new restaurants across the country.

Parker's need for speed has sometimes gotten him into trouble. He has racked up five speeding tickets since 1987, and pleaded guilty to DUI in 1994.

But he is an experienced boater who previously owned a pair of smaller Wellcrafts. Neighbors said he seemed very proud of his new red, white and blue powerboat with the bonefish design painted on it.

"He was always very careful from what I could see," said neighbor Mike Mathis. "He had somebody out there waxing it nearly every weekend."

Whenever Parker cranked up its twin engines and took his boat out from his backyard dock, Mathis said, "you knew when he went out."

"It had a little rumble with it."

Mathis watched Parker prepare to head out into the bay about noon Sunday and was waiting for him to come back when he heard about the accident.

"He was a good guy," Mathis said. "He had a love for life."

_ Times staff writers Chris Sherman, Tim Nickens, Adrienne P. Samuels and Aaron Sharockman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.