R.J. Gator's opens in Bradenton after five-year closure

cschelle@bradenton.comNovember 19, 2013 

BRADENTON -- When R.J. Gator's Florida Sea Grill & Bar reopened Monday in Bradenton, it felt like the family restaurant never closed.

Some of the original food, décor, employees and regular customers are all finding their way through the doors of the Everglades-themed restaurant, 6100 Cortez Road. Few restaurants ever get a second chance to open and succeed with the same formula, but if anyone can do it, Mike and Darla Parry are out to prove that there's more to give to a nostalgic brand.

"It feels like a family reunion," said owner Mike Parry, an original proprietor of the R.J. Gator's in Bradenton, joined by his wife, Darla.

R.J. Gator's is open from 11 a.m. to midnight Sundays through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

The family-oriented restaurant was founded in 1986 in Jupiter with locations primarily on Florida's Treasure Coast. Expansion led to more Gator's on the Gulf Coast, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana with about 30 locations at its peak. The only ones that survived were in The Villages and in Fort Worth, Texas, suburb Hurst.

The Cortez Road restaurant closed on June 1, 2008, because of a lien tied to the Sarasota location that shut down off of Cattlemen and Fruitville roads. During that time, the chain went into bankruptcy and closed all corporate-owned locations in 2008.

The Parrys had some of their best days while working at R.J. Gator's.

His son, Mike Parry Jr., 22, remembers his family driving down when they lived in Zephyrhills as a kid and eating at Table 80 at the front of the house, and when he turned 16 working at the restaurant. When the place closed in 2008, he knew it would reopen one day. His siblings Jason, 21, and Jessica, 18 are also working at the restaurant.

"Ever since we closed down, I had this gut feeling. I knew how bad my dad wanted it. He looked around at other places, but you could tell he really wanted this place back," said Parry Jr., who is an expediter in the kitchen. "I always knew he did."

The extended Gators family is here, too. General manager Terry Jones was one of the previous owners of R.J. Gator's in Bradenton and was the one who had to break the bad news of its closure in 2008.

"It was probably the toughest thing I've ever been through having to walk away from this. We had about a third of our staff with us through the whole time we were open, through eight years. It was like seeing the family splitting up a little bit," he said.

The family always seemed to keep in touch. Every year on June 1 for the first three years, the former employees would return to toast the times R.J. Gator's was hopping, he said.

"We still have some of our original employees to come back and reopen with us," he said.

Jerry Milne was another one of the original franchise owners and traveled from North Carolina to see the reopening of R.J. Gator's. His eyes were still drying as he was overwhelmed with emotion from seeing the place come back to life. He knew that Mike Parry would be the man to revive R.J. Gator's.

"Mike had such an influence here, and he's such a people-person. He knows people by name far better than I," Milne said, wearing an R.J. Gator's button-down shirt for the occasion.

Heather Webb was 17 when she started out at R.J. Gator's, making her way to main server. Now she's 29 and is the manager for the front of the house in what she considers her second home. She can't go a day without someone asking her in person or on Facebook about the restaurant.

"Facebook is blowing up for our personal page and our Likes are increasing every day," Webb said. By Monday night, the restaurant's Facebook page had more than 1,300 fans. "This truly is a remarkable and very special restaurant. "

The Parry family did its best to preserve the Florida Cracker and Everglades blended look, with fresh coats of paint, refurbished tables/decor, 21 HDTVs, new arcade games, the large spice rack is back and so are many of the familiar menu items.

Fan favorites are back including the Okeechobee Chicken Breast, Havana Banana Style seafood plate and a Gazookie, which is a hot chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, caramel and whipped cream.

The Collandra family of Bradenton remembers those old standbys well. Pete Collandra was there Monday with his children Tara, 18 and Austin, 15, for lunch at their favorite dining spot when his kids were 5 and 3 years old.

"A lot of times it was that place to go when we had a special event or birthday or were celebrating something," said Tara Collandra, 18.

Pete Collanda recalls the time the family ordered the Pie in the Face for Austin's birthday.

"I don't remember it but I can imagine," said Austin Collandra, 15, smiling in disbelief, looking at his dad.

And yes, the Pie in the Face is back, too, Darla Parry said, for $5.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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