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He put service first for diners

Bob Heilman created a Clearwater Beach landmark in the Beachcomber.

By MIKE DONINA, Times Staff Writer
Published November 27, 2007

Bob Heilman died at 86 about two weeks after his daughter.

[Times files (1964)]
The Heilmans beam proudly at the opening of the new "Room for One More" area in Bob Heilman's Beachcomber Restaurant on Clearwater Beach in 1964.

Bob Heilman Sr. could solve the world's problems in a five-minute conversation and serve up a fine meal a few minutes later, his friends say.

Born Robert Edson Heilman on March 20, 1921, the Elyria, Ohio, native followed his family into the restaurant business, where he would earn a number of industry accolades and create a Clearwater landmark: Bob Heilman's Beachcomber.

Thousands of Pinellas county residents celebrated their birthdays and anniversaries at the venerable restaurant, known for its fried chicken and comfortable atmosphere.

And Mr. Heilman was as much a part of the ambience as the extensive wine list. He was compassionate and funny. And he loved to play jokes. That, his friends say, is how they hope he's remembered.

Mr. Heilman died Monday (Nov. 26, 2007) at Westchester Gardens nursing home in Clearwater, a little more than two weeks after his daughter, Nancy, passed away.

He was 86.

"I think after he heard that his daughter died, he just gave up," said longtime friend and retired dentist Charles Phillips. "I don't know what else to say, it's just a shock to me. I saw him last week."

Nancy Heilman Herr, 60, died from complications stemming from a monthlong battle after a liver transplant.

Mr. Heilman graduated from Lorain High School in Ohio and continued his education at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, where he played trumpet in the band. Later, he attended Cornell University in New York and studied in its hotel and restaurant school.

He served as an officer in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps during World War II. In 1948, he moved to Clearwater Beach to be closer to his parents. Two days before Thanksgiving that year, he opened Bob Heilman's Beachcomber, the Mandalay Avenue restaurant that would eventually become one of the beach's most popular places to eat.

Still family-owned, the restaurant received many Golden Spoon awards for excellence from Florida Trend magazine over the years and attracted a massive following.

It's known for fine wine, large salads, filet mignon and fresh seafood. Patrons are often found gathered around the wooden bar, listening to soft piano music or just engaging in friendly conversation.

When asked about his key to success, Mr. Heilman always noted that service came first.

"Diners expect a gracious waitress (and) the people in the lounge or at the bar want a friendly bartender," he told the Times in 1969. "Dining out is a total experience, not just a meal. If the experience is pleasant, the result is returning business and that's the key factor in an operation like ours.

"Nobody has a corner on the business so you must keep on trying every day."

The restaurant has generally garnered raves in newspapers and trade magazines.

However, when the St. Petersburg Times wrote a less-than-flattering review in 1989, the newspaper was bombarded by a number of first-time letter writers, many of whom accused the food critic of going to the wrong restaurant.

The faithful continue to flood the restaurant to this day.

"I've never had a bad meal there - if you want steak you can't get any better," said Herb Brown, 84, who opened the first Checkers fast-food restaurant in Tampa in the late 1980s.

Brown said he spent every Saturday and Sunday for more than 40 years playing tennis with Mr. Heilman. The two would often beat players much younger than themselves. Afterward, they would meet with a few friends to discuss current events, politics and sports.

"We solved a lot of the world's problems after those matches," Brown said.

Mr. Heilman was elected to the board of the Florida Restaurant Association in 1950 and became its president in 1965. In 1959, he was elected to the board of the National Restaurant Association and became the president of that organization in 1968.

"Bob and his family as a whole have been just a great family in Clearwater for many years, and the service they've provided to the community has been phenomenal," said Ken Hamilton, president of Palm Pavilion Inn operation on Clearwater Beach. "He was a great one and he will be missed."

Mr. Heilman was also active in the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce. In 2005, he was honored by the organization with its first Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing his contributions to the community for more than 50 years.

He also served for many years on the boards of the Pinellas County division of First Florida Bank and Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater.

He is survived by his wife, Allene Broyhill Heilman; three children, six stepchildren, nine grandchildren, 29 stepgrandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Memorials may be sent to Morton Plant Mease Hospital Foundation in Clearwater and the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast in Clearwater.

A memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Chapel by the Sea on Clearwater Beach. The family will receive visitors after the service at the church.

Times researchers Shirl Kennedy and Angie Holan contributed to this report.

Robert Edson Heilman


[Last modified November 26, 2007, 21:00:01]

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