Thursday morning, entrepreneur Pat Croce became the new -- and proud -- owner of two waterfront watering holes in Key West.
The legendary Half Shell Raw Bar and its historic next-door neighbor Turtle Kraals on Thursday joined Croce's growing Key West bar and restaurant empire that already includes Rum Barrel, Island Dogs, the Green Parrot Bar and Charlie Mac's.
Croce bought the Half Shell and Turtle Kraals from restaurateur Gene Smith, who still owns A B Lobster House on the other side of Key West Bight.
Croce is planning several improvements to both properties, but heartily emphasized that he is not going to "fix" anything that's not broken.
The Half Shell's collection of license plates that lines the walls isn't going anywhere, but the restrooms will be completely remodeled and an underused staff lounge area will become a game room, Croce said.
He is replacing the outdoor stage at Turtle Kraals with two bocce courts and adding a draft beer system to the popular Tower Bar that overlooks the bight.
"I met with the whole staff this morning, and talked about people, product and place," Croce told The Citizen Thursday afternoon while gesturing expansively to the sunlit harbor.
He addressed the entire staff of about 100 workers Thursday morning, and brought in Haitian Creole and Spanish translators to ensure that everyone understood his plans and message.
"I'm trying to make sure the staff feels ownership in these places," Croce said. "One of the bartenders told me, 'Pat, you gotta bring the funk back to the Raw Bar,' and that's what we're doing," he said, showing off the Raw Bar's new tie-dyed staff T-shirts that say, "We're bringing the funk back."
The improvements at Turtle Kraals and the Half Shell will start next month, but the businesses won't close during the renovations, Croce said, stopping to pick up a straw wrapper and introduce himself to lunch customers at the Tower Bar.
Croce first visited Key West 25 years ago, and bought a home in Truman Annex in 2001 after retiring from his position as CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers. Before that, he was a physical therapist who opened a chain of 40 Sports Physical Therapy centers in 11 states. He is an award-winning author, motivational speaker, entrepreneur, pirate scholar and now Key West restaurateur.