Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gator a-go-go

Certain restaurants need a hook to bring in tourists through the doors while needing the locals to funnel through to keep the cash registers ringing through the summer.

One of the best hooks for restaurants in Florida is an Everglades or gator theme. A recent story I wrote on the revival of the local R.J. Gator's Florida Sea Grill & Bar showed that formula works. The restaurant only closed its doors because of bad corporate structure that also tied the Bradenton restaurant as collateral to a Sarasota location that closed its doors. Linger Lodge in East Manatee has this concept down, still attracting people who want a taste of Old Florida, and even getting national recognition on Travel Channel for the food and concept.

So, digging through the restaurant photos I was sure to find some other gator-themed restaurants. I submit to you, Florida Crackers.

This Bradenton Herald archive photo shows owner Jim White on Aug. 16, 1990 with "Al" the alligator who appears to have consumed a giant hoagie that got stuck.

Much like R.J. Gator's, this restaurant plays up for an Old Florida theme, especially with the Florida Cracker name, a nod to the cows and cowboys of old. Plus each restaurant has their own gator mascot. R.J. Gator's gator, Big Jake, is more realistic, looking like a work of taxidermy even though it's a large plastic replica. Big Jake hangs inside the restaurant and isn't to be confused with the cartoon character that serves as its mascot.

Al? He looks like a mix between a papier mache project and a friend for E.T. And that snout looks like it could hook horns with a steer.

I couldn't find anything in our newsroom library or online about this restaurant, or Al. Contribute below if you remember something about Florida Crackers.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Wonders of Wagon Ho

I'm humbled by the response for little ole' Wagon Ho. 

We decided to share the story with the "If you grew up in Bradenton, FL, you remember" Facebook group, and it resulted in 145 likes from the group, another 80 Recommends on the site and a deluge of Facebook comments that provided some insight on the restaurant. The column was the second most-read story on Wednesday, too.

I'm also surprised how much people can go back and forth over whether the restaurant turned into an Arby's, and the consensus appears to be no.

Here's one gem that shed some light via Facebook from a former Wagon Ho employee:

Joyce Alderman Fulghum I was one of the first employees when WAGON HO opened. the big guy on top was Big Paul. I was there from start to finish. It was never arbys ...The dodge place took over the lot with the wagon then tore it down when remodeled, it was my understanding Paul was sold or donated to someone.
A letter via email from Pastor Bill Straitwell gave a fascinating look at the construction of Wagon Ho, plus an inspiration to find of photo of Kenny Rogers Roasters, which blows my mind that there was one in Bradenton. I don't know if I've ever seen one in person. My exposure to the restaurant was limited to an episode of Seinfeld.

Here's Pastor Bill on the Wagon:

Hello Chuck,
My wife and I have lived in the Bradenton area for the past 23 years, and our first house in the area was in Bayshore Gardens, which is not too far from the old Wagon Ho.  While we have never been inside the building, I can speculate what the inside looked like.  The Conestoga portion of the building was built by Seaman Corp. located on Whitfield Ave.  I worked as a supervisor there when I first moved into the area.  Seaman is no longer there, but their headquarters in Wooster, Ohio. Seaman built large buildings shaped somewhat like the Wagon Ho, but considerably larger in size.  Many of the buildings were built for the military at the start of the Gulf War. Hopefully I have added some insight into your fine article.  (Did you know that across the street was a Kenny Rogers Roasters Restaurant, which featured roasted and delicious chicken?)  I believe it was roughly by the present day Hooter’s. Blessings, Pastor Bill Straitwell