Bright afternoon light pierces through the Cabana Inn, causing the handful of regular patrons at the bar to squint as Scott and Beverly Woolridge walk through the front door. After adjusting to the light, the customers recognize the couple, who took over in January as new managers, and they exchange friendly greetings.
Just past the bar, on the newly built 10-foot-by-20-foot stage, established local drummer Mike Fender is breaking down his drum kit. He excitedly calls out to the new managers to continue a conversation they’d started the night before.
“These musicians are starting to feel like our extended family,” says Beverly Woolridge. “They all have certain times they stop by, and we’ve gotten to know them all so well. It’s to the point where if we don’t see them in here when we expect to, it’s a little weird.”
Just a few months ago, the scene inside the Cabana Inn was a drastically different one. The mere mention of the bar’s name evoked negative connotations and uneasy feelings. Built in 1958, the historic South Tamiami Trail bar and motel was once heralded as a family vacation destination, but, over the last 15 years, poor management eventually drove the bar into disrepair, and the hotel and club became synonymous with violence, prostitution, drug use and employee theft.
“The best way to put it is that the bar was sorely mistreated,” says Scott Woolridge. “It had become a hangout for all the wrong kinds of people, and it really made a lot of people not want to come back here. We had no idea exactly how bad things were until we actually took over. ”
The Woolridges took over after forming a relationship with the bar owner through their DJ and entertainment business. It was clear the bar needed new managers, and the owner offered them the job of cleaning up the bar’s image under a lease-with-option-to-own contract — no small task.
After working with police to eliminate loiterers, they began cleaning up the bar. They stripped and refinished the floors, removed years of tobacco soot from the ceilings and windows, cleaned bar equipment and restrooms they say hadn’t been touched in years, replaced the air conditioner and refrigeration system and built a new bar and stage. The list continues.
The hotel rooms are currently in disrepair, and the couple says they’re working with the bar owner to tackle those renovations after the bar.
The biggest positive change to the bar, however, hasn’t been cosmetic. The most noticeable difference is the bar’s atmosphere, which the Woolridges attribute to the local musicians who have rallied around their mission to rebrand the bar as the area’s premier music venue. Local acts, such as R.J. Howson, Damon Fowler, Thorson Moore and Kettle of Fish, have all begun booking shows at the venue to help usher in a new crowd.
“The musicians have really embraced what we’re trying to do here,” says Scott Woolridge. “We’ve got some great people advocating for us, and the tides are starting to turn. We seem to see new faces every night.”
With renovations under way and a new crowd of patrons and musicians supporting the cause, the Woolridges say they look forward to season picking up, so they can continue to create the new Cabana Inn.
“We’ve got to be very picky and very careful,” says Scott Woolridge. “We have one chance when people come in the door, and we can’t have even a hint of the vibe that used to be here. This place used to be a Sarasota icon, and we want to be the people to bring that reputation back.”
Work in progress
After six months of renovations, including adding a second bar and a stage with a top-of-the-line sound system, Managers Scott and Beverly Woolridge say they’re just getting started. Proposed future improvements include:
• Moving the original bar to the exterior wall to open up more space on the dance floor and refinishing it to match the new bar.
• Finishing the stage to include a hardwood bamboo floor.
• Adding an outdoor tiki hut and small acoustic stage
• Adding a kitchen to serve bar food.
• New furniture and lighting.
Contact Nick Friedman at [email protected].