Florida Keys Business
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Sloppy Joe's still rocks 75 years after legendary move

In a town of ever-changing buildings, bars and businesses, one name has endured for 75 years, standing sentinel over Duval Street and lending its visage to an entire town.

Sloppy Joe's bar and restaurant, the local landmark and must-see attraction for throngs of sunburned tourists, will celebrate its 75th anniversary at the intersection of Duval and Greene streets on Saturday.

The bar's history is steeped in legend and inextricably linked with a bearded literary giant known locally as Papa Hemingway.

Although it's difficult to imagine anything but Sloppy Joe's housed in the sprawling white structure at 201 Duval St., the 1917 building was home to the Victoria Restaurant until a man named Joe Russell paid $2,500 for it on May 5, 1937.

Russell was a familiar and colorful Key West character long before his first name shone in red neon on the front of the building. A rumrunner and fishing captain, Russell also operated an illegal speakeasy on Front Street during Prohibition, often selling contraband bottles of scotch to then-resident writer Ernest Hemingway.

"Key West being a bastion of free thinkers even in the '30s, Prohibition was looked on as an amusing exercise dreamed up by the government," local author Carol Shaughnessy wrote in her book "Sloppy Joe's: The Legend Continues."

Russell's and others' illicit enterprises kept the town's population well-lubricated in spite of the federal government's doomed "Great Experiment" in temperance.

Illicit became legit on Dec. 5, 1933, with the repeal of Prohibition, which prompted Russell to move his operation to a rundown but charismatic building on Greene Street, the current home of Capt. Tony's Saloon.

He renamed the place The Silver Slipper when he added a dance floor, "but it didn't matter," Shaughnessy wrote. "It remained a place of shabby discomfort, good friends and gambling, 15-cent whiskey and 10-cent shots of gin."

Ernest Hemingway encouraged the next -- and lasting -- name change. He had often visited a bar in Havana, owned by a Spaniard named Jose Garcia Rios, according to historical documents provided to The Citizen by Sloppy Joe's officials.

The floor of Rios' place was always wet with melted ice dripping from the seafood he served, prompting patrons to nickname the place Sloppy Joe's. The name stuck and eventually crossed the Florida Straits, where it became a permanent part of Key West history.

The legendary relocation of Sloppy Joe's to its current location is the stuff of local lore, retold every day by tour guides and the dedicated staff of Sloppy Joe's, who continue to serve cold drinks in a hot town -- as well as The Original Sloppy Joe Sandwich.

Russell apparently balked at a proposed rent increase from $3 to $4 per week, and instead migrated to one of Key West 's busiest intersections on May 5, 1937. As the story goes, and in the true Key West style of cocktails "to go," patrons simply carried their drinks -- and their barstools -- across Duval Street to the new building.

Once every stitch of furniture was moved, regular patrons quickly arranged themselves around the town's longest bar while longtime bartender "Big" Skinner, took up residency behind it and continued serving drinks for 20 years.

The new building featured intricate Cuban tiles and lazily rotating ceiling fans that worked overtime to move the oppressive humidity that defined Key West in the days before air-conditioning.

Drinks are still being spilled on the tile work, and the wobbly ceiling fans still turn high above the crowd, which undergoes a subtle but marked change each afternoon as the shadows lengthen and the sun begins its nightly retreat.

Daytime visitors eagerly explore the bar's interior, moving with a drink in hand, from photos of Hemingway to record-breaking marlin and an airplane propeller from one of the first PanAm flights between Key West and Havana, said Donna Edwards, marketing director.

As the sky darkens, the lights dim and live musical acts take the stage. The staff clears away several tables every night to reveal a Spanish tile dance floor that quickly fills with people who knew that a trip to Key West simply had to include a visit to Sloppy Joe's and the purchase of a T-shirt.

The logo that features the bearded face of Hemingway is recognized all over the world, Edwards said, crediting the late and beloved general manager, Jean Klausing, with much of the worldwide branding efforts and with the well-known longevity of the Sloppy Joe's staff.

Reta MacMackin-Root has worked there for 25 years, Julie LaMattina for 24 and Kit Crowl has been serving food and drinks to sun-seeking visitors for 32 years.

"I don't know if I'd even still be in Key West if I hadn't gotten a job here 25 years ago," MacMacken-Root said, still clearly happy with her career choice.

Sloppy Joe's Controller Kathy Marshall moved to Key West with two daughters and no job in 1989.

"Back then, the only food we served was from a front concession, take-out window, and that's where I worked," she said. "I noticed immediately back then that the people had all been here a long time and I got the sense that they took great pride in their job and in this place. You can't get a better job in town."

Key West native son and Motown master Robert Albury nodded his head in agreement, and recalled his 20-plus years as both a stage presence and an employee.

"I started out with the cleanup crew, working early morning hours," he said, thinking back on the bizarre assortment of items -- and people -- that had been left behind. "I came to work for Jean and said I'd do it for six months, but then I met the people and here I still am."

Albury long ago traded his 4 a.m. cleanup shifts for daytime hours in the retail warehouse, but he still takes the stage every once in awhile to belt out his trademark soul tunes.

"Jean was like a father to me," Albury said, nodding to June Klausing, Jean's widow, who remains a devoted "ambassador" to Sloppy Joe's, where her husband remained general manager emeritus even after his retirement in 1999.

The island's collective bar staff, a tight-knit community within a tight-knit community, mourned Jean Klausing's passing in 2009.

"This is real family," Marshall said with a sweeping gesture that took in the historic buildings, her co-workers, the walls of memories and a storied bar. "And Jean was Papa."

Bar owners Sid Snelgrove and Jim Mayer hired Klausing when they bought the business in 1978. Mayer died in 1991 and Snelgrove's stepson, Chris Mullins, has stepped into Klausing's shoes as general manager and quickly credited his staff with the bar's popularity and success for 75 years.

"Every place in town serves up food, drinks and live music, but at the end of the day it's the people who make this place what it is," Mullins said. "They have direct personal relationships with their customers. We don't do a lot of advertising but everyone who comes in and has a good experience tells all their friends."

Of course, word-of-mouth advertising is helped along by the millions of T-shirts featuring the familiar bearded face of a man named Ernest, who was there at the bar when it all began 75 years ago.

The bar will celebrate its 75th birthday on Saturday with live music and giveaways all day, a birthday cake at 2:30 p.m. and a street concert at 7 p.m.


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