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  1. Business

'Fat Willie' hangs up fry basket, turns over venerable seafood restaurant to family

VALRICO — Since 1975, Bill Robinson has been working in a restaurant.

Now after 40 years, the founder and namesake of Willie's: The Place For Seafood — formerly known as Fat Willie's — will hang up his frying basket at the venerable spot neatly tucked away at the corner of Front and Main streets.

For the last few years, Robinson has been preparing his stepson Jeff Peterson and Jeff's wife Danielle to run the show, and this year they finally took full control of the kitchen and the books.

Both began working at Willie's as teenagers.

"The last three or four years I started slowing down," Robinson said. "Jeff has been managing the place for a while and I think he'll do a good job keeping it going."

Peterson, who already has more than 15 years under his belt, has been a helping hand in many ways.

"I started washing dishes when I was 15 and then I went away to college and worked at a few places," Peterson said. "I got a belly full of it so I came back and now I'm doing everything from cooking and cleaning to repairs."

Peterson shares the same theory of "keeping it simple" as his stepfather, a trait they both believe helps the mom-and-pop business thrive among so many chains now lining major Brandon roadways.

Involving the family is nothing new for Robinson. He started the restaurant with the help of his mother, cousins and uncles, but it took him a while to find his way to being an area seafood-serving icon.

After a stint at FSU, he left the university and joined the Air Force.

"I went to FSU, but I couldn't continue because I didn't have the funds," Robinson said. "The draft was breathing down our neck because in those days if you weren't in college you were going to get drafted, so I spent four years in the Air Force."

After leaving the Air Force, Robinson dabbled in a various careers: construction in Miami while learning the ins-and-outs of aviation, flying for Winn Dixie and eventually becoming a salesman, first for a truck-trailer manufacturer and then Xerox.

It wasn't until he was in his 30s that he realized he wanted something more for himself and all it took was a few good, deep-fried fish.

During his time in North Carolina working as a salesman, Robinson frequented Lineberger's Fish Camp.

"You've never seen an organization running as smooth as this restaurant," Robinson said. "It had 550 seats and it was like going to Disney World."

Robinson spent a week in Jack Lineberger's kitchen, frantically jotting notes on his notepad.

He recorded everything: Recipes, menus, prices, kitchen equipment model numbers, and even where ingredients were bought. And he brought all of it to Florida when he moved from North Carolina at the age of 35.

Amid 40 years of running his own seafood joint, a handful of celebrity visits and multiple generations of patrons, Robinson still recalls the first few weeks of reconstruction and opening the restaurant as some of his fondest memories.

"The excitement was the high part," said Robinson. "I was excited from the moment I started ripping up that floor in the kitchen with my brother and cousin."

Now the Petersons look to continue the tradition and keep it all in the family.

Instead of planning any major additions or changes to the business, the Petersons are focused on improving what they have.

"The building is over 100 years old, so we aspire to earn enough money to sink a big chunk of that into it," Jeff Peterson said.

While the couple believes Robinson built something sustainable and don't plan to make any major business changes, they do believe that adding a few items for the health-conscious visitors will help reach out to new customers.

"We really don't want to change the business model," Danielle Peterson said. "We'd like to add a few healthy items to the menu, but otherwise it's good, home-cooked food that's obviously worked really well."

The new chapter for the entire family will bring on new adventures for all involved. Robinson and wife Maryellen plan to travel around the country, while the Petersons take charge of the restaurant as well as their two young children.

As far as the future goes, they all share a common hope.

"I grew up here and this place is my heart," Danielle said. "I would love for it to stay in the family as long as we can keep giving customers and good experience."

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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