ST. PETERSBURG — A guy walks by a Central Avenue bar and sees people drinking beer at 8 a.m. And from that depraved start, a noble force for good was born, raising thousands for charity from early morning tipplers.
The annual Beer Breakfast held downtown every year on the Saturday of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will once again draw a crowd starting at 9 a.m. for breakfast, beer and a Bloody Mary bar with the proceeds supporting a local charity.
Organizers have raised more than $30,000 since 2008. Money has gone to kids with cancer, paid for ballet lessons and helped clean up estuaries.
And it's all thanks to the grizzled barflies at Mastry's.
The iconic downtown bar that has anchored Central Avenue since 1935 is famous for its line of regulars there when it opens at 9 a.m., though there was a line at 8 a.m. for years before the city upped the closing time to 3 a.m., said owner Jay Mastry. He moved opening time back an hour.
"But they still are there when we open the doors," Mastry said.
Jared Repka, who has run the commercial finance firm Bison Financial Group since 1994 with his brother David, was walking by on his way to work when he noticed the men already drinking from full mugs of beer at 8 a.m.
"Those guys have got a great idea," thought Repka, now 46.
It was 2002 and he and a few friends, five in all, met up for some doughnuts, beer and Bloody Marys. A party idea was born.
In 2003 downtown became a race track, and Repka pegged his Beer Breakfast to the Saturday of race weekend. More and more friends started showing up. It became such a staple event among his friends that Repka started printing T-shirts just for fun.
"It got to the point where I was printing 30, 50, 60 T-shirts using my own money," he said. "Then I got thinking, why don't I get reimbursed for the T-shirt cost but raise money for a charity?"
He picked the Children's Dream Fund, a charity that fulfills wishes for children battling a life-threatening illness. They raised $2,500 in 2008, he said.
Last year, close to 300 people stopped by during the course of the party at Mandarin Hide, a bar next door to Mastry's. The party raised $10,000 for Tampa Bay Watch, the environmental organization devoted to restoring and protecting Tampa Bay's estuaries.
Repka has a dozen sponsors now, with St. Pete Bagel and Kahwa Coffee adding to the spread that is still mostly potluck. Tito's Vodka donates vodka for the $5 Bloody Mary bar, with half the proceeds going to Florida West Ballet, this year's charity. He'll auction off a weekend package from the Sirata Beach Resort and will take cash donations from the partygoers.
"People come literally from all around the world now," Repka said. "It may have started sinister but I would say this shows that people are looking to be a part of something. People love to be able to help out when they can, and this gives them a way to do it and let their hair down."
Mastry, whose family has had its name on a Central Avenue watering hole since Babe Ruth was in town for spring training, said he got a kick out of his patrons inspiring the Beer Breakfast.
"We've been a dive bar for 100 years and nothing is going to change that," he said on a recent morning. "And that's okay."
He waved at the dozen regulars who were already holding court in his bar before 10 a.m.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.