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After 40 years, Skipper’s Smokehouse owner looking to sell

Tom White is ready to retire, leaving the future of the beloved Tampa concert venue up in the air.
Fans hit the dancefloor at Skipper's Smokehouse while the band Impulse jams on stage during their weekly Island Night party in 2012.
Fans hit the dancefloor at Skipper's Smokehouse while the band Impulse jams on stage during their weekly Island Night party in 2012. [ SANTANA, LUIS | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 25, 2020|Updated Sep. 30, 2020

Skipper’s Smokehouse’s long, strange trip is coming to an end.

Owner Tom White announced Friday that he’s looking to sell his beloved Tampa concert venue and mullet shack, effective at the end of this weekend’s 40th anniversary celebration.

“I don’t want to be that person that just works himself to death,” said White, 73. “It’s time for somebody else. I want to find somebody to carry the torch.”

The Skipperdome will open for special events, but the bar and restaurant are closing. White is keeping his concert booking business, and is “looking aggressively” for a partner to take over Skipper’s. He’d love to maintain a role in the music and menu of anyone willing to take over the ramshackle complex.

“My blood’s there — my blood, my sweat, my tears,” he said. “A lot of really, really great times, a lot of great experiences there. The people are the best, of course. So many people have said, ‘Hey, the reason I live in this town is because of Skipper’s. The reason I moved my family here is because of Skipper’s.' That’s what’s kept me going over the years. The music, the food, all that feeds your soul.”

People dance in the sand at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa in 1987.
People dance in the sand at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa in 1987. [ Tampa Tribune ]

Skipper’s opened in September 1980, a partnership between three Air Force buddies who wanted a place to shuck oysters and smoke mullet. White is the last of the three with a day-to-day stake; he’s been there for thousands of concerts.

The venue was beloved for its open-air courtyard beneath sprawling live oak branches, and just as much for its embrace of all types of music, from blues to jam to reggae to zydeco. Among the notable acts that have played there: Rock and blues greats like Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, the Black Keys, John Mayall, Rob Thomas, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi.

Skipper's Smokehouse patrons dance along to live music from Uncle John's Band on Dec. 6, 1997.
Skipper's Smokehouse patrons dance along to live music from Uncle John's Band on Dec. 6, 1997. [ JULIE BUSCH | Tampa Bay Times ]
Related: Skipper's Smokehouse at 30: Looking back at the venue's storied history

Like all concert venues, Skipper’s has struggled mightily during the coronavirus pandemic, canceling concerts and closing for weeks at a time. Shortly after reopening for limited business in June, the venue temporarily closed again when it looked like employees may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. White also suffered a severe ankle injury while doing housework, which forced him to take a step back.

“This put the icing on the cake," he said. "I really have been trying to find someone who really has the passion to take over and do the day-to-day stuff, which I couldn’t do anymore. It’s not fair to everybody. We’ve been doing the best we could.”

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Owner Tom White shows off a large prop horse at Skipper's Smokehouse in 2013.
Owner Tom White shows off a large prop horse at Skipper's Smokehouse in 2013. [ Times files (2013) ]

The announcement has prompted an outcry from friends and regulars, White said, many of whom have begged him — through vibes both kind and unkind — to reconsider.

“There’s a lot of people that are upset at my decision,” he said. “You can’t make everybody happy. But we certainly had a good shot at doing that.”

Skipper’s 40th anniversary concerts this weekend are sold out; many longtime patrons who might have wanted to get back there one last time will be out of luck.

“I really want the best for Skipper’s, I want the best for my employees, I want the best for my customers of 40 years. I’ve got multi-generations of families that have been coming there. It’s a bittersweet time. I really am twisted up about the whole thing. But it was time.”

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