TAMPA — There is a cult-like following at Skipper's Smokehouse. And, when the restaurant announced last September, on their 40th anniversary, they planned to close and sell, customers were heartbroken.
On Thursday, music boomed through the live oaks over the stage affectionately dubbed the Skipperdome.
"We are kind of unique in that we aren't totally a restaurant, we are not totally a venue, and we are not totally an oyster bar," Cricket Larson said. Larson's official title at Skipper's Smokehouse is Chief Cook and Bottle Washer."
Skipper's Smokehouse closed during the pandemic, only opening a handful of times to see if they could turn a profit.
"Without the music, we really just couldn't make it on takeout or limited capacity dining situation," Larson said. "The pandemic showed me that we needed to work on our food program cause I feel like if our food program had been a bit stronger than it was, we might have had the opportunity to survive or hang on a bit longer."
In September, they played their final concert and closed the doors.
"At some point, you have to stop the bleeding. You know that's what was really hard, the staff part of it, a lot of those folks had been with us for many years. Some of them came back, not all of them," Larson said.
While looking for a new buyer, Larson said they couldn't connect with anyone who could carry the restaurant's legacy into the future. So, the owners decided they weren't going to sell and made a choice to start over.
Some veteran staff came back, but most are new, including their chef, focused on fresh fish, homemade sauces, and making dishes like their famous grouper Reuben even better. They even touched up the place with fresh paint, new seating areas, updated kitchen appliances, and slimmed down their menu.
"Some things look different, but the vibe is soul-deep, and the vibe is still here; the vibe hasn't gone anywhere. It's the same as it's always been," Larson said. "You don't know what you have until it's gone kind of thing, and so I found myself sad about the fact I couldn't come up here and have the same faces that I love seeing on a regular basis around or hearing live music."
For the first time, the restaurant is also offering reservations for convenience so customers can secure a spot, and it helps the staff plan for how big a crowd they might have. All staff are required to wear masks, and some of the food they were famous for won't be on the menu. Nevertheless, they are tough decisions Larson said were necessary to survive.
"They just weren't moving like they need to be moving, so we had to make some data decisions and make hard decisions," Larson said. "They weren't always ones that I enjoyed making, but they had to be made in order for us to get to a point where we could open and hopefully survive."
The oysters are still shucked fresh at the oyster bar, the grouper Reuben is still a hit, and live music is back on their calendar. Larson is excited to say Skipper's Smokehouse is back and hopefully better than ever.
"As long as they'll (customers) keep loving on us, we'll do our best to keep this thing going and loving on them," Larson said.