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East County Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2020 4 months ago

EYE ON BUSINESS — Ellenton lands a waterside attraction

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Whiskey Joe's finds a "perfect" spot on the Manatee River.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It didn't seem fair for Marty Duffany, the regional manager for Whiskey Joe's, who came to the area more than two years ago to check out a property on the Ellenton side of the Manatee River, just west of Interstate 75.

The property ran two acres along the river but it was rough, covered with trees, high grass and weeds.

Ed Chiles, who owns beachfront restaurants on Anna Marie Island and Longboat Key, decided to sell the property, and after Duffany gave it a thumbs up, Whiskey Joe's snapped it up.

So March 16 was supposed to be a happy day for Duffany, who was thrilled with the grand opening of the restaurant group's fourth site, joining Tampa, Port Richey and Miami. Cars were lined up on an access road to the restaurant and most of the available seating was filled. 

Bartender is Niki Simeone hands out an adult beverage at Whiskey Joe's on the Manatee River.

Instead of basking in a great moment, though, Duffany was making sure the restaurant was practicing social distancing in reaction to the coronavirus and planning for the expected closing of bars and restaurants by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Less than a week after the grand opening, Whiskey Joe's had to close its dining and bar areas.

Those who want to try out the food can still order take out or they can get delivery, but until the coronavirus subsides, patrons won't be able to hang out on the white sand beach, sit by one of the many fire pits, drink at the tiki bar or enjoy the fare in the main dining area.

When that eventually happens, Duffany is confident the area will embrace his brand, which he took over in 2009.

During the grand opening, children were playing in the sand while their parents were enjoying a cocktail. A band was playing Caribbean-style music to those sitting by the main dining room bar or hanging out on the deck. The cloudless sky made the water a beautiful blue.

"I knew this was a perfect site," Duffany said.

He said Whiskey Joe's all share common amenities, such as the beach, the firepits and the tiki hut. They are all waterfront properties.

Although the bar is a big part of the business, he said the locations all are family friendly. He explained how a family can come and have dinner, then go out to the beach to hang out. The kids, who often bring their sand toys, don't get bored so the parents get to stay longer.

Duffany said the time-of-stay is tracked closely by the restaurants and they have found their customers stay about an hour longer than do at other restaurants and bars.

The first Whiskey Joe's opened at Rocky Point in 2004, but was taken out by hurricanes in 2004. They rebuilt in Tampa and the other three locations followed.

Duffany said his parent company, Specialty Restaurants Corp., is closed to signing a deal for another location in Bradenton, although he said he couldn't reveal the location. Two more locations in the region are in the planning stages.

"We bring a little bit of the Caribbean to Florida," he said. 

The new restaurant has homes in the area, so Duffant said they have to be cognizant of the noise level. He said any band playing at the venue must use the restaurant's speaker system. That will control the noise level. Whiskey Joe's will offer live music, both in the afternoon and evening, on Thursdays through Sundays.

Whiskey Joe's is about a quarter mile from Woody's River Roo, which is another restaurant-bar on the river.

"Our philosophy is that we don't feel we have competition," Duffany said. "We want to be part of the community. We consider Woody's River Roo as our neighbor. I think we bring up the level of quality experiences in this area. We have a proven brand that works."

Whiskey Joe's also owns another parcel just to the east of their current land, and an expansion is planned to offer another dock and an events center. However, development has to wait until the Florida Department of Transportation finishes an entrance ramp to Interstate 75 that is planned for the area.

The restaurant offers 8,000-square-feet, air conditioned, and will have 138 employees when it continues full service after the coronavirus threat.

Those employees were bussed to Whiskey Joe's Tampa location early in March so they would be trained by the time of the grand opening. Whiskey Joe's won't offer its full menu until a few months of regular service. Duffany said that will add about 15 additional items.

Already, the menu offers seafood, tacos, pizzas, salads and burgers.

Then there is the lure of the waterfront.

"People are going to stay, 'I just want to hang out in my shorts,' Duffany said. "And if they hang out on the beach, I have a foot-washing station for them."

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