Greg Jackson turned up at Shooters in July of 1982, not long after the place opened. He was a kid from Ohio, in his early 20s, who’d just left a job at a west Broward TGI Friday’s. He either quit or got fired, he says with a laugh. It was a long time ago and details are hazy.
He wanted to work at the bar; the owners chuckled and pointed him towards the kitchen. Bartenders were well-paid rock stars in Party Town, USA, and that meant bartending jobs were just about jobs for life.
“They laughed because the bartenders were making three, four hundred dollars (a night), and that was in the ’80s. They said ‘Hey, if you want to work a bar job, check the obituaries.’”
So he got to work in the kitchen. And he was in the kitchen one day when he found out a handful of colleagues had just become former colleagues. Four bartenders had been fired for stealing, four more had been suspended and suddenly, there was a shift open for a young guy who might want to tend bar.
That was four decades ago, and Jackson has held onto his job the way he was told bartenders did.
In that time, he’s seen changes. Changes in Fort Lauderdale. Changes in tourism. Changes in the restaurant and bar business. Changes in the ownership of Shooters Waterfront. But through it all, the bar and restaurant on the east bank of the Intracoastal in the shadow of the Oakland Park Boulevard bridge has maintained a community. Loyal people, who sometimes now come back with kids and grandkids. Peter Lopez, Shooters Waterfront’s operations manager, sees it today.
“This community is a very outdoor alfresco social community,” Lopez says. “It’s really a beautiful thing to watch when it’s humming like that. It’s almost like a little oasis where people forget their troubles at the door.”
Good, Clean Fun
In 1970s and ’80s Fort Lauderdale, Greg Jackson says, you had two kinds of dining and drinking establishments. Places were either “fine dining or salty as hell.” However Jackson had experiences at one of the places changing that model. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, TGI Fridays was still a revolutionary bar and restaurant company. The first Fridays had opened in 1965 in Manhattan and quickly distinguished itself as a place that was casual but which also emphasized cleanliness, good food and a welcoming atmosphere. Unaccompanied women went there, and in 1965 that was revolutionary.
Jackson hooked on with Fridays in the late ‘70s; he traveled the country opening new locations before settling at the Broward one. When he walked into Shooters Waterfront, he recognized what they were doing. It was a casual place with a big bar, but it also had high ceilings, decent bathrooms, coolers that plugged in. “They definitely modeled themselves on TGI Fridays,” he says. “They were shiny but they were affordable – they weren’t an old salty bar and they weren’t fine dining with a band playing and waiters in tuxedos.”
The people behind Shooters Waterfront were four Canadians. One, Jackson says, was a gun collector, which is where the name came from. (It also dovetailed nicely with the drinks specials – every shooter was $2.) Business was big from the beginning, and soon the owners were able to buy out their next-door neighbor, Bootlegger.
“It was almost like we could hardly do any wrong,” Jackson says. “The bar was always two or three or four deep. The cool thing was, it was affordable. We were a polished act on the water; it was very Fridays-like.”
Through the ’80s and into the ’90s, the place built a reputation. A 1990 Sun-Sentinel feature painted a picture.
“Shooters offers food for the belly – everything from baked brie appetizers ($6.95) to grilled teriyaki dolphin ($10.95) – and a feast for the eyes,” writer Henry Leifermann reported. “Young women with aerobics-trimmed bodies prance about the pool and docks in the skimpiest of bikinis as moneyed men with deep tans and layers of gold chains look on, doing their best to hide paunches and jiggling jowls.
“Sprinkled among the crowd are the usual pretenders nodding in rhythm to the sounds of the band Triple Play, waiting for a chirp on their beepers and portable phones, trying to look like high-rollers instead of used-car salesmen from West Broward. Male and female members of the younger set stand around practicing the casual look.”
Taking all this in was Reggie Moreau, one of the four Canadian owners, “an affable entrepreneur who sports a gold-chain necklace with “‘Shooters’ spelled in diamonds.”
Whether you owned one of the high-dollar cigarette boats tied off at the Shooters Waterfront dock or you were, well, one of the usual pretenders or used-car salesmen from West Broward, this was the place to be. FM rock station WSHE hosted events. There was live music and other entertainment, including the famous Hot Bod competitions. (The ’80s were a different time.) There were Tuesday-night mariachi bands, Mexican-themed nights, a legendary Halloween party. They’d cover the pool with lucite because people needed more places to stand. Yacht owners, yacht brokers and yacht crew would stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar – it was a place for all.
“It appealed to everybody,” Jackson says. “It was a little crazy sometimes when families with kids would come in and the bars were filled, but it was a good buildout, lots of dock space, west exposure so you get that sun in the afternoon.
“It was good clean fun. Bikinis, board shorts, beers, boats – lots of Bs there – it was good clean fun.
“If Shooters was on Federal Highway it wouldn’t have been around for 40 years.”
Even as “good clean fun” was the order of the day along the Intracoastal, Fort Lauderdale was changing. As the 1980s rolled into the ’90s, city leaders decided they wanted fewer college spring breakers, more family and adult tourists. The city famously cracked down, enforcing rules that had always been given a blind eye; spring break numbers plummeted accordingly. But as it turned out, making the former group feel less welcomed was easier than changing the place’s reputation and bringing in the latter.
Jay Schiltz, a data analyst who studied tourism and spring break in Fort Lauderdale while earning a graduate degree at Iowa State University, cited the work of Canadian academic and tourism researcher R.W. Butler, who laid out two broad paths for tourist areas that have peaked and must reinvent.
“Faced with mounting problems,” Schiltz wrote, “resorts either embark on a period of ‘decline’ where ‘the area will not be able to compete with newer attractions’ or ‘rejuvenation’ may occur, although (Butler) explains, ‘it is almost certain that this stage will never be reached without a complete change in the attractions on which tourism is based.’
“Fort Lauderdale actually experienced both of these phases successively. Of course, Fort Lauderdale went through an era of serious decline when it could not compete with either Central Florida for adult tourists or, because of its crackdown, with Daytona Beach for collegians. Yet, Fort Lauderdale was also able to enjoy rejuvenation, but only after realizing the incompatibility of mixing college crowds with adult vacationers and completely redefining itself as a tourist attraction geared toward the latter.”
Mom-and-pop beachfront motels were sold. Bars closed. Fort Lauderdale’s transformation began happening, but it didn’t happen overnight.
And at Shooters Waterfront, there were several ownership groups and some years when maybe, the paint wasn’t as fresh as it could have been.
“We had lean times when the market was tough,” Jackson says. “It’s amazing that we’ve weathered it. I attribute it to the sparkling water and the constant movement of boats.”
Jackson remembers William McIntyre wanting to talk to him. This was about a decade ago and McIntyre and his daughter, Meghan Leckey, were considering buying Shooters Waterfront, which had gone into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Mr. McIntyre, Jackson remembers, had one question: Had the Shooters brand been damaged irreparably? Jackson said it absolutely had not been. The previous owner, he said, “didn’t ruin the name. He bought a home run and turned it into a double.”
The new owners set about hitting home runs again.
Old Friends, New Plans
Greg Jackson was working one recent day when he heard a French-Canadian accent from the other side of the bar. The guy wanted a Stoli and soda with no fruit. Jackson knew immediately. That was the go-to drink for Andre, an old regular. The man across the bar was Andre’s son. He didn’t actually want a Stoli and soda with no fruit, but he knew Jackson would remember.
These days, Jackson tends bar when it’s light out. Saturday-night drink-slinging is a young person’s game, and he’s been at this since the early Reagan administration.
No time was better than when an attractive young woman who worked at another local institution – the old Galleria Saks Fifth Avenue – walked into Shooters Waterfront. They got talking and a while later, Greg and Gail got married. They lived near the beach and the bar; their happy world revolved around just a few miles. She kicked his butt when he needed it, made sure he got to work.
“I was a hardworking rescue dog at the time,” he says. “But I needed a little bit of guidance.”
Gail died in 2016. After her passing, a regular who’d known Greg for a long time got him booked into therapy.
When you talk about community, you’re talking about that.
Of course, there’s also plenty of business to talk about.
“The new owners, they have just totally killed it,” Jackson says. “They are the real deal. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine because they put the time and effort in to keep things nice.”
There are, operations manager Peter Lopez says, more plans. The organization that once bought out Bootlegger recently bought the neighboring Flip Flops property. They knew it would have to be a teardown. They’re now in the permitting and planning process – doing things that involve the Intracoastal can take literal acts of Congress – but they have plans for that site. It won’t be easy or cheap.
“Buildout, pre-Covid, was about $350 a square foot,” Lopez says. “Right now it’s about $600 a square foot.” It’s a 6,000-square-foot property. And that’s before you even put anything in it. “It’s a few pennies to talk about,” Lopez says.
The concept is still in the works but broadly speaking, it will be outside, on the water, celebrating that Fort Lauderdale boating life. “Let’s not kid ourselves, everybody wants to be outside,” Lopez says. “Let’s not put four walls around it.”
The new place will have a Shooters-ish vibe, but it won’t be Shooters Waterfront.
“That property will have its own kitchen,” Lopez says. “It will have its own life separate from Shooters.”
But it will have the same ethos that has served to bring back Shooters Waterfront in the past decade.
“Between myself and Meghan (Leckey), we have a philosophy … we’re really happy with our success, but we’re always striving to be better,” Lopez says. “It’s always got to be fresh, it’s always got to be new, it’s always got to be appealing.” Service, he says, has got to be legendary.
Jackson tries to be good at his job. It’s for others to decide if he’s legendary. But he knows what the place has done for him.
“It has shaped my life,” he says. “The view there is amazing.”