Southern Sojourn

A Sea Ray Sundancer owner turns his passion for fresh seafood into a delicious dream-come-true.

Tony Phelan, a.k.a. “Texas Tony,” is the kind of guy you just can’t help but like. He offers a hearty welcome when he has the pleasure of meeting customers who’ve come to one of his many Pinchers Crab Shack restaurants in South Florida. “You can’t fake fresh,” is the motto of his business, which promises delicious seafood straight from the gulf. Pinchers certainly delivers, but there’s more to that motto than succulent crab. Tony’s not one to fake anything. His pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps success story is the real deal.

After moving to Florida from Texas on the family’s last dime, Tony opened a little shack in Bonita Springs that would eventually turn into something much, much bigger. “We started Pinchers in a parking lot with six tables,” he recalls. “No one was doing the blue crab in Florida. We opened in January of 1997, and the Naples Daily News did a story. It’s been a rocket ship ever since.”

“We have nine restaurants and soon to be ten,” he adds proudly. Tony recounts his story while maneuvering his new Sea Ray 540 Sundancer into a slip at Tarpon Point in Cape Coral, where one of his restaurants overlooks the marina. The Florida sun glistens on the hull as Tony helps his wife, Kathleen, onto the pier. A hostess smiles and waves as the Phelans enter and head to their favorite table for lunch. The couple quickly puts in an order for a sampling of some of their favorite dishes. From the 540 Sundancer to the bustling restaurant, evidence of Tony’s success is all around him. Yet he admits he remains keenly aware that it wasn’t too long ago that things weren’t so great.

Texas Tony hails from the Lone Star State, of course, and it was there that he first
got into the restaurant business with a string of Irish pubs located across the state. But an oil bust in the mid-1980s left the hospitality industry flailing in the dwindling economy.

Tony eventually sold the restaurants so he could pay bills and get out. “We moved to Florida with our two sons, two cars and two packed trailers. And one of the cars got repossessed,” Tony says. Finances were bleak at the time, and Tony’s health was also in trouble. He’d recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Kathleen shakes her head, remembering the situation. She says that she was worried they’d be saddled with a double whammy of medical and restaurant debt. But the two can laugh about it now, knowing that everything has worked out. Tony’s health has improved, and the restaurants are a huge hit. The Phelans’ oldest son, Grant, has now taken the reins and operates the business.

Although retired, Tony still takes great pride in the Pinchers legacy. He loves to walk customers up front to the seafood case, ask one of the employees to give him a crab and say, “When God was making the stone crab, he left his thumbprint.”

Each Pinchers Crab Shack is a carefully curated museum of interesting tchotchkes, repurposed signs and locally crafted art. “The goal was to have people walk in and think they were on the water,” Tony says. He looks around and points out his favorite pieces at the Tarpon Point location. “Everything on the walls here I’ve collected,” he says. “People started bringing things to us, and I’d add it to the restaurant.”

Some of the pieces are actually Tony’s creations. He uses an acetylene torch on paint thinner barrels to create pendant lights with etchings of things like tarpon or bonefish. He also enjoys supporting the local creative community by giving artists pallet wood to see what they can concoct to hang in various Pinchers locations. As a tribute to the original Pinchers with its six tables made from pallet wood, all of the signs that decorate the walls of the restaurants are made from the same material.

Of course, some of the signs and other treasures in the restaurants are items Tony and Kathleen have found while out on their many boat trips—which they’re quick to rave about. “The Sea Ray and MarineMax experience is unbelievable,” says Tony, who bought his boat from MarineMax of Fort Myers. When the Phelans purchased their first Sea Ray, a 44 Sedan Bridge, part of the hook was that their salesman, Brian Kemmis, had mentioned that MarineMax hosts 30 getaways a year.

The opportunity to spend time with other like-minded water lovers and share in the camaraderie of exploring a new or much-loved locale truly appealed to the couple.
With frequent trips to the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, Tony and Kathleen put 600 hours on the Sedan Bridge pretty quickly.

“My training is ongoing,” Tony says in regards to learning to captain the Sea Ray. Prior to his first, he had only taken the helm of smaller boats like the 28-foot catamaran they used to own. “With MarineMax, it’s unlimited training. Whatever you need.” However, Tony is quick to point out that Sea Ray offers him a secret weapon. “We found Zeus,” he says of the Cummins MerCruiser pod drives, which allow for precision control. “Zeus will make an inexperienced captain look like a hero.”

The Sea Ray name was something that had always stuck in Tony’s mind. When he was fairly young, he spent time working as a waterski instructor on Texas’s Lake Travis, which involved operating Sea Ray sport boats. “We had a fish camp we all lived in, and they let us use the boats at night,” Tony says. “We had a blast.”

Now with a more grown-up boating style, Tony opted for the same brand because of its sterling reputation and distinct style of luxury with a practical touch. “I love that the 540 is large enough that everyone has their own space,” he says. “It’s economical and comfortable.”

Kathleen sips her drink and smiles widely. “Sea Ray does beautiful things with the interior!” she says. Style was definitely something that was on her mind when the couple bought the boat because they enjoy entertaining others onboard for pre-dinner drinks at dockside restaurants. They also love lounging just offshore near the many barrier islands that dot the area, including Sanibel, Captiva, Useppa and Gasparilla. Sanibel is a favorite for its sandy beaches and prominent lighthouse. Captiva is home to several beautiful resorts and restaurants. Boaters can also head inshore up the Caloosahatchee River toward the Fort Myers River District where shopping and more restaurants await, or head down the gulf shoreline towards Bonita Springs or Naples.

“We live in the most ideal boating place in the world,” Tony says of the options just outside his back door. He loves the water and, fittingly, his biggest passion is talking about fresh seafood. Pinchers now owns a 50 percent stake in Island Crab Company, a family-owned business located in St. James City on the southern tip of Pine Island. Island Crab Company doesn’t pasteurize its crabmeat, which means it delivers absolutely the freshest crab possible to Pinchers restaurants.

For Tony, that was the ultimate goal in starting the business. When a platter of stone crab arrive to the table, he smiles at a grinning Kathleen, who’s heard the line a million times: “Honey, I can guarantee you that two nights ago, these crab slept in the Gulf of Mexico.”

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