Bar owners struggle to shape new image
By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Dave Koenig has a challenge for anyone on the beach: Try to find a more hated bar manager on the Pinellas beaches these days.
Since December, when new owners Joe and Lana Heilman took over the Red Lion Restaurant and British Pub on Gulf Boulevard, Koenig has been "the heavy" around the place. The pub's general manager says he's thrown out more people than he can count as the new owners try to take their cleanup of the Red Lion beyond a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting.
Changing the reputation of a notorious bar in a small town isn't easy.
"You set the tone from the time you walk in," Koenig said. "If you allow the derelicts and druggies to come, you've set a precedent."
When the Red Lion's owners recently asked for city permission to sell hard liquor in addition to the beer and wine already on the menu, they learned just how difficult it would be to tame the Lion's poor image in the neighborhood.
"I'm glad to see the Red Lion making improvements, but there has not been enough time to change the clientele and build new habits," resident Bill Ockunzz told the City Commission. "I encourage you to deny this and give them time to prove that they are good citizens."
Koenig, who takes seriously his charge to clean up the bar, resents the idea that the Red Lion is still a bad neighbor. "That's hard for me to swallow," he said.
The Lion earned its bad reputation in a short amount of time. The previous management ran the place for just two years, but in that time it went from being known as a friendly, food-serving bar that attracted families to a source of drug activity allegations and noise complaints.
Then came the fight in May 2001 that left one man dead after his head was slammed to the ground in the Red Lion parking lot. Just one month earlier, another man had died in a fight at Whitey's Beach Bar, also in Indian Rocks Beach.
Both bars were often cited by authorities as drug dens. This summer, when the Sheriff's Office arrested 18 people on drug charges in Indian Rocks Beach following a four-month investigation, the two bars were mentioned by the Sheriff's Office.
At Whitey's, some of the problems were caused by employees, including bartenders who wrapped the drugs in napkins and included the cost of the drugs in the bar tab.
The Sheriff's Office emphasized that at the Red Lion, those arrested on drug charges were patrons, not employees and that Koenig and the Heilmans had cooperated with the investigation.
Koenig says his zero-tolerance policy is tough on business. Every troublemaker he bans from the bar has a group of resentful friends who won't be back, either. Once he threw out two women who had spent 20 minutes in the bathroom.
"It's either sex or drugs," Koenig said. "People aren't in there fixing their makeup."
Sure enough, after they left, he found a plastic baggie in the women's toilet. He assumed the women had carried marijuana or cocaine in it.
It took only a few weeks for the bad crowd to learn it wasn't welcome at the Lion, Koenig said. But that means the pub had to attract an entirely new group to keep its doors open.
The Heilmans thought they knew what they were getting into when they bought the Red Lion, but they now say they didn't realize how serious the problems were there.
"We didn't know we'd have to run off all the customers to clean the place up," said Lana Heilman, who also owns Lana's Place and R Bar in Treasure Island and Friendly Tavern and Fort Knox Lounge in Redington Shores.
In 2001, the Sheriff's Office was called to the place 25 times. So far this year, deputies have been called to the Red Lion four times -- twice to issue trespass warnings at Koenig's request.
Sheriff's Deputy Ken Hollandsworth, who has worked Indian Rocks Beach for three years, said the Sheriff's Office and city officials had met several times with the bar's previous managers, trying to make the bar more responsive to complaints from the neighborhood.
Since the Heilmans took over, the Sheriff's Office has received no credible complaints about the bar, and the city and Sheriff's Office have had no need to meet with the current managers.
"You can take any bar that is a problem," Mrs. Heilman said, "and with a change in management and a change in clientele, you can solve the problem."
It was the Heilmans' effort to change the clientele that made them realize how difficult their goal was.
When the Red Lion owners asked the city for permission to sell hard liquor, they were hoping the new offering would attract more women. But the request was met with a heated outcry from neighbors who warned the city against doing any favors for a pub with such a poor history.
"Please, please, please do not approve this," resident Evelyn Page said. "We've had enough problems with beer and wine, and now we're going to give her hard liquor? We've had so many bad things happen over there."
The question of whether hard liquor will be served at the Lion could be moot. Indian Rocks Beach rules require the property owner to sign off on the approval, but the Heilmans lease the property and are in a dispute with their New York landlord.
But the experience made the Heilmans and Koenig aware that public perception will make or break their business. "We try to make it a more respectable place where families can come without having the derelicts of the community come in and run them off," Koenig said.
He thinks the Red Lion is on its way to respectability. One Tuesday night a couple of weeks ago, he was faced with an unusual dilemma for a bar: He had so many families with children eating dinner at the Red Lion that he ran out of high chairs and booster seats.
-- Times correspondent Sheila Mullane Estrada contributed to this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks