WEST BRADENTON -- Mike and Darla Parry are ready to dust off Big Jake and invite all of his friends over for a comeback of R.J. Gator's Florida Sea Grill & Bar.
The 16-foot plastic alligator still hangs above the hostess area at the restaurant, 6100 Cortez Road, along with the original decorations, seating, bar and even pagers for waiting diners since it closed in 2008. The Parrys are ready to give the popular restaurant a second life in Bradenton, with plans to reopen in late October.
"I always dreamed of having it back," says Mike Parry, the original proprietor of the Bradenton location. "I was never able to live it down. I honestly haven't gone two days without running into someone who was a guest, someone who worked here that said 'I miss R. J. Gator's.' I'm thinking it could possibly be a bigger hit than what it was before with this second coming."
The Jupiter-based chain started in 1986 with locations primarily on Florida's Treasure Coast. Through expansion, locations included several along the Gulf Coast, as well as in North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana with a total of about 30 restaurants. But the company went into bankruptcy and closed all corporate-owned restaurants in 2008.
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The Bradenton location always made a profit, Mike Parry said. But when the Sarasota restaurant opened on Cattleman Road, where
Trader Vic's stands today, the Bradenton restaurant was used as collateral. So when the Sarasota location failed, the Bradenton one went with it. Another R.J. Gator's was planned in the restaurant space beside the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex in 1999, but never opened.
The Bradenton restaurant was never forgotten, Mike and Darla say, as fans and former employees came back to the parking lot on June 1 for the first two years after the closing for a Gators reunion.
During liquidation, the rights to the restaurant were acquired by Dan Graham, who still operates R.J. Gator's in The Villages, which has been open for 13 years. One other R.J. Gator's is still going strong in the Fort Worth, Texas, suburb of Hurst.
Graham describes the restaurant and menu as a bit of the Old Florida/Florida Cracker vibe with its rustic setting. He loves that fans of the chain are coming back and two other businessmen are inquiring about opening R.J. Gator's in existing locations.
Little has changed with R.J. Gator's, though a new menu was unveiled recently at The Villages, including a gator burger. The population around The Villages has changed, and the menu attempts to cater toward the Latino and Hispanic taste buds, he says.
"Our main focus the last couple of years is with the Latino population increasing, we had to spin the menu a bit more toward those foods, including offering fish tacos," he says.
All the longtime signature dishes, including gator tail and Havana banana chicken, are still on the menu, Graham says.
Mike Parry cut a deal with Graham this week to acquire the rights to the name and reopen Bradenton's R.J. Gator's.
The memories and love for the restaurant run forever like the Everglades theme that carries through the restaurant. This is where Darla Parry remembers making tons of friends, and seeing her kids grow up in front of her.
Asked what R.J. Gator's means to the family, Darla looks over her shoulder where a youth sports photo hangs featuring her two daughters and son that managed to stay ever since the restaurant closed. Tears fill her eyes.
"I have to think about that," she says. But her face says it all.
She remembers how her daughter, Jessica, would tell everyone how her daddy is the boss.
"She tried to host and do cartwheels, and everyone knew, 'Oh, there's Jessica,'" says the Manatee County Schools special education teacher.
Their son, Michael, also worked in the kitchen when he was old enough.
R.J. Gator's was really never work for the Parrys.
"The old saying of how you find something you love and you never work a day in your life -- that's how I feel about when I'm here," Mike Parry said. "Like there's no time clock on me."
While the family memories and R.J. Gator's paraphernalia are intact, a lot of work has to be done to get the restaurant into shape to open. Some vandalism occurred after the closing, including air conditioner theft and graffiti, and burglars broke in through the roof and a window and stole copper piping.
All of that will be replaced, a new A/V system with HDTVs will replace the old Sharp CRT televisions, the bar will be redone, the interior will be reconditioned and the exterior will see a face-lift.
"The exterior is going to be a big hit -- all new landscaping, paint, roofing, new air conditioning, new palm trees, new pavement," Parry rattles off. "From the outside looking in, it will look better than when we opened in 2002."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.