599 South Collier Boulevard, Unit 218, Marco
Who knew that Captain Brien wasn’t a bearded, crusty old salt — the quintessential New England sea captain? Certainly, not moi. We talked several times on the telephone trying to set up an ETC interview, and I thought I detected a slight New England accent when we agreed to meet. Also perpetuating the seafaring captain scenario was my hazy recollection of the decor and menu in the old Capt. Brien’s Seafood & Roast Beef at 317 N. Collier Blvd., which to my mind definitely evoked New England fishermen in dory boats and clam shacks along the Old Boston Post Road.
Except now the little seafood restaurant had literally exploded into a major, sophisticated seafood dining destination and classy comedy/nightclub called the new Capt. Brien’s Seafood & Raw Bar restaurant, combined with Off The Hook Comedy Club and located in the trendy Marco Walk. It was time to investigate!
All of the above considered, it shouldn’t be a stretch to understand why I was still expecting to interview my idealized version of a seafaring Capt. Brien — the one who made a fortune with his fishing fleet. Did I mention that the Spina family moved en masse — beginning in 1996 when Papa Santo Spina retired — to Southwest Florida? Did I tell you that the Spina’s missed the wonderful native New England seafood (like fried Ipswich belly clams) and decided to open Capt. Brien’s so young Brien could enjoy a culinary career and the family could pig out on cod and clams? More on that later.
Back to the book of Brien and saga of Santo. Now, keep in mind that the original restaurant’s décor (or theme, if you will) evokes a quintessential Gloucester fishing port circa 1623 or New Bedford in its whaling heyday, and its alter ego comedy face the Marco equivalent of Vegas. So you see, when I told the gentleman at the entrance (who had an uncanny resemblance to Kevin Costner), that I had an appointment with Capt. Brien, it’s no wonder the cat had my tongue when he led me to a well-groomed 30-something guy sporting an impeccably trimmed beard and casually dressed in preppie alumnae uniform — off-white shirt open at the collar and tan pants — and looking sooo cool! I wanted “Captains Courageous” Spencer Tracy and I got “Pal Joey” Nathan Evans instead.
That having been said, it wasn’t all that bad. Actually it was quite good because the older gentleman who was standing by the entrance at the hostess desk turned out to be Capt. Brien’s papa, Santo Spina, who was “sort of” Brien’s partner in what grew into a thriving family fishing charter and restaurant business. There is quite a bit of fishing fleet lore, culinary tradition and family history here — just not the fanciful tale I had wanted it to be. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that young Brien Spina did make his own history when he embarked on a roundabout voyage to achieve so much (who knows, maybe Ensign Brien to follow?) in such short a time.
To set the record straight off the bat (pun intended), Brien did study culinary arts and played baseball in high school. Then he went to Endicott College, where his culinary arts goal was relegated to a back burner because he also wanted to be on Endicott’s baseball team and there was a scheduling conflict between culinary and the sports program so he majored in psychology instead. Fast forward to 1998 Florida where our budding entrepreneur is an intern with the Florida Fish and Game Commission (now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) and contemplating becoming an officer in that state agency.
“I wanted to be a fish and wildlife officer — go around on a boat,” explained Brien, noting that he was interning there because at Endicott (a private college) he (and all Endicott seniors) had to do an internship before graduation. “But, you have to have a captain’s license too before you can become an officer, so it was a logical move I thought, and I took the courses and passed with flying colors.
“Then another logical move. A captain needs a boat so I started Satisfaction Guaranteed Fishing Charters, and continued that for almost four years. Santo, that’s my pop, was my silent partner and bookkeeper.” The senior Spina agreed. “We were working together, The charter business flourished and we grew to five boats.”
However, it all began before that. Papa Santo had retired in 1996 to Isles of Capri after 30 years operating and hands-on working in a successful florist and greenhouse business in Wakefield, Mass., a town inland from Boston. Brien came down from college, worked at Backwater Nick’s for his summer job, and then returned to college until he graduated in 1998.
“I got tired of being retired. Backwater Nick’s was really open for business by then,” related Santo.
“So, I went and asked them if they wanted to hire me as assistant manager and they took me up on it. After all, I had 30 year’s experience running a successful floral and greenhouse business and that came in handy later when I helped Brien build up the charter business to five boats.”
Meanwhile Brien was continuing his internship with the FWC and graduated in ’98 and started the charter business.
“I got the captain’s license just for the hell of it,” Brien said laughing. “But the charter business took off and my original goal of becoming an officer got sidetracked.”
“Just hit the right niche at the right time,” Santo quipped, adding that he continued at Backwater Nick’s for three years and Brien was buying more boats to keep up and accommodate clients at his private charter business until…
The Santo tribe was nestled on Isles of Capri and everything was running smoothly. Until the itch for Ipswich clams and other cold Atlantic delicacies couldn’t be denied, said Brien (or words to that effect. I declare, father and son had more ways and words to use when telling it).
“We bought the lease for the former pizza place (317 N. Collier Blvd.) in July 2001 and the whole family, including mom Janice, pitched in to remodel the interior into a seafood place and they opened for business in August 2001, Brien said.
“The whole family and I thought the location was going to be good for the type of business. The concept was casual, fast food and carry-out seafood, because we were used to the seafood concept,” Brien explained.
“Every time I opened the newspaper they were advertising fresh seafood, but we were from New England and that wasn’t our idea of seafood, so we were making sure we would have access to it and introduce Marco Island to real New England seafood.”
Papa Santo left Backwater Nick’s before the opening to become active in the new restaurant while Janice also pitched in as hostess and executed the décor prior to the opening, while Brien continued working the boats half the day and coming back to work in the restaurant for the remainder of the day.
“I was the chief cook, the charter boat captain, the restaurant chef and brew dispenser — the whole thing,” Brien explained. “But we were working together and that’s what mattered.”
However, it soon became obvious that the restaurant was becoming too much of a good thing — they were outgrowing the location, he explained, for a number of reasons. Parking and occupancy limits were among the few.
“We kept our eyes open, all the while looking for a new location, and we all jumped in to run the family business.” Pap Santo explained. “I was doing the salad and sandwich station and the raw bar – Brien was fishing, creating menus and working as line cook.”
In the meantime, the developer of Marco Walk, Leon Agami, was a regular at the restaurant, and he happened to overhear that they were looking to expand and invited them to open their new place there. For a while they (the family) were both building the new place and running the restaurant. When it came time to renew their lease, they shut down and began to focus on the new venture.
“Then (Hurricane) Wilma arrived — it put us back five weeks until we opened here (at Marco Walk) in October 2005. I was working 18 hours a day — on the water half a day and the rest of the time in the new restaurant at night — of course there was support, my mom and dad and my wife, Karen. But I still did my part and I really enjoyed the cooking part,” Brien said.
At that time the Off the Hook Comedy Club was really starting to take off. An unsolicited offer came in for the charter business — one facet of the charter thing was that most of the clients didn’t feel like cooking so they would bring in their catch and I had six different options — see the menu, change nothing concept,” Brien explained, noting that the Comedy Club has changed and they’re now doing nothing but national touring comedy acts. In the restaurant, it’s casual but trendy, Brien said.
“Our menu has evolved to keep pace with the trends in fine dining. Our menu has changed completely at least 10 times since we opened but keeping the old favorites, and of course, maintaining the quality. That will never change!”