- August 13, 2010
When California talent agent Justin Edbrooke tells his clients they're booked at a comedy club inside a seafood restaurant on remote Marco Island, he gets lots of questions.
“Wait, a fish house?” Edbrooke laughs. “It's crazy, and it takes a lot of convincing to get a client to go there for the first time.”
But Off the Hook Comedy Club on tiny Marco Island in the Everglades has become one of the hottest destinations in the country for top-rated stand-up comics. Performers have included superstars Drew Carey, Kevin Hart, Darrell Hammond and Carlos Mencia.
The funny thing is that the owner of the club, Brien Spina, knew nothing about the comedy club business when he started it in 2005. In fact, he didn't know the restaurant business when opened Capt. Brien's Seafood & Roast Beef take-out in July 2001.
Today Capt. Brien's Seafood & Raw Bar and Off the Hook Comedy Club are so successful that Spina was able to sell it to finance an even bigger project: A multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Bonita Springs, centrally located between Naples and Fort Myers.
When it opens next year, Spina says the performing arts center will have a 650-seat dinner theater that will host comedians and other theater productions (the Marco Island restaurant will cease being a comedy club venue when the new center opens). There will be room for catering banquets and weddings too, and the center will be able to accommodate 1,000 people.
It's a long way from where Spina started in 1998 when he moved to Marco Island, where his parents had retired. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and later the BP oil spill were big setbacks that could have put him out of business. But the 37-year-old entrepreneur found a way to endure these challenges and expand.
Entrepreneur at heart
Spina, a Boston native, watched his parents build a successful flower and greenhouse business, and he wanted to do the same. “I grew up watching my parents working for themselves,” he says, undeterred by their seven-day-a-week work ethic. “I wanted to be my own boss.”
So when they retired to Marco Island, the young Spina moved there too, earned a captain's license and bought a fishing boat in 1998. When he applied for a business license, the clerk asked him for the name of the business. He hadn't thought of one, so he blurted out the name of his boat: “Satisfaction Guaranteed.”
Satisfaction Guaranteed Fishing Charters promised you'd get your money back if you didn't catch any fish. That kind of promise and customer focus helped Spina grow the charter-fishing business to a fleet of 10 boats by the time he sold it in 2008. Only three times in 10 years did he have to refund customers, and even then only because of foul weather.
In July 2001, almost on a whim, Spina bought a small pizzeria and transformed it into a seafood and roast beef take-out, like the ones he remembered as a child in Boston. Lunchtimes were busy, but dinners were slow. And then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened and the tourists disappeared in late 2001. “We almost went out of business,” says Spina, whose partners in the venture included his father, Santo Spina.
To survive the tourist downturn, Spina pitched a fishing-charter club to local residents. For $50 a month, locals could go fishing on one of Spina's boats, but they had to share it with other passengers. Spina says he offered the deal until the tourists started coming back. “That saved us,” he says.
Meanwhile, he expanded the restaurant to include sit-down waiter service and outside seating in January 2002. “Within six months sales doubled,” he says. Tourists, he discovered, didn't want to buy take-out food. “They still want to be wined and dined.”
Spina, who says he needs just five hours of sleep, ran his fishing-charter company by day and the restaurant by night. He enlisted the help of his parents and his brother-in-law with the restaurant while he tended to the fishing-charter business during the day.
In 2004, the landlord for the restaurant location wouldn't renew the lease for Capt. Brien's, so Spina took a chance with a new development being built near the sprawling Marriott resort on Marco Island. At 150 seats, “I thought it was the size of the Pentagon,” chuckles Spina, who mortgaged his home and used all his savings to build the restaurant. “It was every dime we had,” he says.
The last laugh
Worried he might not be able to fill a bigger restaurant with seafood alone, Spina thought of the idea to start a comedy club inside it. He'd seen restaurants be successful hosting comedians in Boston, but his friends and family weren't impressed with his idea on Marco.
“Everybody told me I was nuts and that it would fail,” he says. “They said no one would pay a cover charge.”
But locals and tourists converged on the restaurant, which had to turn patrons away to make room for those who had come to watch a comedy show. “We were losing money by having comedy,” Spina says. “My mom, my dad and the chef were yelling at me.”
To make room, Spina talked the landlord into leasing him double the space he had just started renting and he started the shows later in the evenings. The restaurant and the club now total 5,600 square feet, enough room for 220 people.
Initially, the comedy business was a big money loser. Plus, Spina's calls to agents of top talent were never returned. “Everything was a loss for comedy for two years,” Spina says.
Then, in 2007, comedian Pauly Shore returned Spina's call. Shore, who manages his own career, told Spina he was performing in Tampa and if Spina sent a stretch limo to fetch him and his kids he'd come down to do a show.
Shore sold out at Off the Hook. “He took a liking to me and loved the club,” Spina says. Shore then offered to open doors for Spina, spreading the word among agents and other comedians in Los Angeles and New York. “Andrew Dice Clay calls me on the phone,” Spina remembers in one instance soon after.
Finally, all the hard work was starting to pay off as agents started returning his calls and booking well-known artists. “I'm booking one big act a month,” Spina says. “I saw a glimpse of light.”
Word spread to customers, too. “People came from everywhere,” Spina says, driving 40 miles on average to Marco Island to hear their favorite comedians. When the BP oil spill hit the seafood-restaurant business in 2010, it was comedy that saved him, Spina says.
Call Capt. Brien
Edbrooke, the California talent agent with Super Artists, says Spina treats the artists with special care, taking them fishing and putting them up in deluxe beachfront accommodations. “It's almost a paid vacation,” says Edbrooke, who says the crowds in Marco appreciate good comedy.
Spina says the fact that he always introduces himself as Capt. Brien amuses the L.A. and New York comedians. “That was the door opener. It helped sell the sizzle,” he says.
“One thing he's really smart about is he'll take a chance on up-and-coming comics,” says Edbrooke. “That goes a long way for a lot of these guys, and they'll return the favor. He sees a lot of the love coming back.”
That kind of goodwill will go a long way to helping Spina in his next venture, the Southwest Florida Performing Arts Center he plans to build at the corner of Imperial Parkway and Bonita Beach Road in Bonita Springs. “We want to build a big venue,” Spina says.
Spina declines to discuss the financial details of the comedy club business and his restaurant, but says the new facility is a multimillion-dollar investment financed by SunTrust. He recently sold the restaurant and plans to open the new facility early next year, expanding a closed Eckerd drugstore to do it.
“We want to build a world-class theater,” says Spina, who says comedians are demanding to play in bigger venues. “Comedy clubs are losing business to theaters,” Spina says.
Sam Vincent, the Bonita Springs architect who is working with Spina, says the Marco Island entrepreneur pays close attention to every detail. “When he thinks of ideas, they're not just off the wall,” Vincent says.
For example, Spina may install special motion-activated mirrors in the bathrooms that show scenes when someone isn't standing in front of them. “Innovative things are pretty expensive, but he's a person who likes to move forward on this stuff,” Vincent says.
“He's always optimistic and enthusiastic, and it's contagious,” Vincent says. “He's very concerned about having a top-notch show and making sure that the venue is very inviting.” And that's no joke.