By Will Estell
Chances are if you’re from anywhere south of the mason dixon, you’re already familiar with the Flora-Bama. However, if you haven’t yet made it down, up, or over to this iconic coastal hotspot, you probably know plenty of people who have, or you’ve at least heard the stories… oh, the stories.
The Flora-Bama is quite arguably the most famous beach bar in the entire country, and it’s all for good reason. The history behind this once small hole-in-the-wall package store with a lounge in the back is about as interesting as the characters—some famous, some simply infamous—who’ve frequented it over the past seven decades.
To understand the magnetic draw of the Flora-Bama, it helps to know a little about the history of this establishment that straddles the line between Orange Beach, Alabama and Perdido Key, Florida. Way back in 1962, the State of Florida gave the State of Alabama two miles of prime beachfront land in return for the construction of the Perdido Pass Bridge. Along came the Tampary family (Father Ted along with his sons Connie and Tony) who decided to build a package store and a small bar. Right smack dab on the new State Line.
The Flora-Bama was constructed in 1964, just two years after the new bridge and road were completed. In those days, the beaches on either side of the line were a lot different than the hustle and bustle of our modern era, and the Flora-Bama was practically the only bar in the surrounding area. As time went on, over the next few years, traffic counts and tourism began to increase along these beach communities, with Flora-Bama benefitting from that growth. At the time Escambia County, Florida, was a wet county, while Baldwin County, Alabama, was dry. This posed a small inconvenience for the Tamparys, but not one they couldn’t find a solution for.
Jump ahead to 1978, and local businessman Joseph Gilchrist purchased the little bar and package store. This is when live music began to be a regular staple of the Flora-Bama, with people dropping by to have a drink and listen to some tunes in the little bar area. In 1986, Gilchrist brought in his business partner, Pat McClellan, and together they worked to grow the audience and popularity of their establishment. By adding appealing events like the Interstate Mullet Toss and the Frank Brown Songwriter’s Festival (the latter being named after the early night watchman at the bar) the new owners were able to organically build the popularity of their venue.
In 2009, John McInnis and Cameron Price, both formerly in the construction industry, became co-owners of the Flora-Bama, along with Joe and Pat. McInnis’ family were longtime friends with the Gilchrist family, and being from nearby Montgomery, Alabama, John had been very familiar with the famous establishment and, like many, felt a special magnetism to the Flora-Bama.
I recently sat down with John McGinnis and Cameron Price, at their sister restaurant, Shunk Gulley Oyster Bar, on Scenic Hwy. 30A, to talk a little more about Flora-Bama and the magic behind the good times coastal staple of fun. Though I’d never formally met John or Cam until a few months ago, I certainly knew of them, and was aware that we had a good number of mutual friends and acquaintances, ranging from Gulf Coast locals to close friends of John’s who have also been previous feature article interviewees of mine. A few you may have even heard of, like Kenny Chesney, Jimmy Buffett, Drake White, and John Rich, along with many other well-knowns that McInnis has befriended and built relationships with over the years. In fact, he’s even President of Kenny Chesney’s Love for Love City Foundation, an organization set up in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma to help get aid to the people of the Virgin Islands.
The friendship between McInnis and Chesney began after Kenny had visited Flora-Bama while on tour, playing at The Wharf in Orange Beach. Kenny told me this about the first time he visited Flora-Bama: “Someone found us a boat. We hit Pirate’s Cove, then the next thing you know we [he and his tour manager, David] were at the Flora-Bama, hanging out, laughing and telling stories. We must’ve been there three hours. Completely forgetting it’s a show day. All of a sudden, I looked down and it hit me! ‘David, we’re an hour and half ‘til Meet & Greet. We gotta get outta here!’ We made it, but I tell you what; if we could’ve moved the show to the next night, and just sat there, that would’ve been okay with me. It’s the kind of energy that really makes me love the place. Show up, sit down, grab a cold drink, and just let the hours pass. Come with your friends or find some new ones, but whatever you do, you’re gonna have a good time.”
When I went on to ask Kenny about the inspiration for his hit song, “Flora-Bama” written alongside another friend of McInnis’, country artist David Lee Murphy.
“I won’t say ‘Flora-Bama’ wrote itself, but when you have a bar like that, all those details and people, life and love and laughter just tumble into each other. All the images paint a pretty vivid picture, and if you capture that spirit, you’ve really got something.”
Thankfully, John seems to like it, so we must’ve done something right!” said Kenny.
Having a few other connections who I knew had played the famous bar, I reached out to some of them for comments and kudos about the Flora-Bama. This is what country hitmaker, Drake White had to say: “I’m from Alabama and the Flora-Bama has been a part of me as long as I can remember. When I was a kid I used to dream about playing there (we all did) and with sweat pouring down my guitar, a 4-beer buzz, and a salty, barefooted smile, I have been able to play many times at the historic rite of passage. I consider it an honor and a privilege to play songs where so many greats have come before me. The Bama is the greatest bar in the world, but it’s also a church, a family, and a part of me. Some of my fondest memories have been made there. I’ve fell in love, got in a fight, got food, boozed and wrote a song all in the same place on the same day. It’s a way of life that has to be experienced. As far as the Bushwackers go? Two is not enough but three is too many!”
It seems everyone from Kid Rock and Hank Jr. to Jimmy Buffett and John Rich have fond memories and stores about this loveable beach bar, no matter where they may be in various levels of their musical careers. A friend of mine, and popular performer along 30A and the Northwest Florida Gulf, Casey Kearney, recently played Flora-Bama’s Ole River Grill stage and had this to say: “Flora-Bama has its own unique vibe. I love the stages, right by the water, with the boats, the sun and the sand. It’s such an iconic venue that I feel like every professional musician should play there at some point in their career.”
I even recall John Rich (Big & Rich) talking about the famous watering hole, when I visited his Mount Richmore home a few months back, in Nashville. Rich talked about his fondness for the bar, as well as his friendship with McInnis.
“You know they even have church there on Sundays. Where else can you play the main bar Saturday night and then go back to church there Sunday morning?” said Rich.
It’s true, you can even get the t-shirt, ‘My Church Is At The Flora-Bama’ in their merchandise store.
All to say that you really know a place is widely revered and respected when everyone from up-and-comers to well-established artists feel so passionate about a venue that they want to talk about it. Not to mention, when someone like Chesney and co-writer David Lee Murphy nail a hit country song specifically about the place. A song that coincided with one of the largest (about 30,000 people) and most well-organized and successful free outdoor concerts I’ve ever been to; 2014’s Flora-Bama Jama.
I asked McInnis for a little more insight into just what makes the Flora-Bama so magically appealing to such a vast array of people from all walks of life.
How does one little beach bar, in Orange Beach, Alabama, and Perdido Key, Florida, become so well known around the entire country, when I really can’t recall ever even seeing advertising for the place, over all the years I’ve been in publishing and advertising?
“In the mid ‘80s Jimmy [Buffett] who’s a friend, and is from Mobile area, would come over, play and hang out, and he even wrote about Flora-Bama in ‘Tales from Margaritaville’ [Buffett’s first best-selling book, from the late 90’s]. Kenny Stabler, would also come over and hang out, he was from Foley, Alabama, and at the time, Kenny was telling people nationally that Flora-Bama was the best bar in the world. So now you have the top NFL quarterback in the country, and Jimmy Buffett, telling people, ‘Hey, this is the best bar in the world.’ Shortly after, Playboy Magazine named Flora- Bama the Number One Beach Bar in the United States. And they [owners Jim and Pat] never spent a dime on marketing. So they went through the ‘80s, ‘90s and first few years of 2000s just having a good time and building it to become more and more popular into what it is today.”
Tell me a little about how you became involved and moved from managing a third-generation successful construction company to becoming the owner of the world’s most famous beach bar?
“In 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit Orange Beach and just destroyed the place. I was working in the disaster clean-up side of our family business, and personally working to rebuild Orange Beach, so I tried to do what I could to help out Joe and Pat in their efforts to rebuild the destroyed Flora- Bama. Then in 2009, when I was returning from New Orleans, after managing what was the largest FEMA funded demolition project in history, where our company [one of the many ventures John’s family was into, including building over a thousand bridges, building ferries, and creating toll roads] literally tore down ten thousand homes, damaged by Katrina, in Saint Bernard Parish, I was trying to figure out a way to work closer from home in Orange Beach and get off the road. While Joe and Pat were looking for someone to carry the Flora- Bama into the future. So, God just worked it out, it was the perfect time for them and the perfect time for me. I went from being a full-time contractor running around the world, to being a full-time beach bar owner and a part-time contractor. At that time, Cameron Price was my Chief Operating Officer in the construction business, so I brought Cam on in 2009 as a partner in Flora-Bama. Since then it’s been, Joe, Pat, Cam, and myself. With me being the majority owner, Cam managing the day-to-day functions of the business, and Joe and Pat doing what they’ve always done.”
It just amazes me how many famous people have played the Flora-Bama and consider it an almost rite of passage in their careers. Especially in the country realm, and among those who love the whole beach vibe themselves. Why do you think that is? What’s the proverbial secret sauce?’
“You know, I think it’s really just built on good times and lots of fun, and the history of all the big names who’ve come through our doors and graced our stages. It really is, like you say, just magic.”
I’m sure you’ve been approached by people wanting to license the Flora-Bama name for other locations, do you ever consider that possibility? And as entrepreneurs who have now built two other restaurants and a watersports rental business alongside Flora-Bama, as well as this restaurant [Shunk Gulley], do you think you could replicate Flora-Bama in other places yourselves?
“Sure, we’ve been asked about that, many times. But, you know, even if it would work, it just wouldn’t be right to do. There’s only one Flora-Bama. You can’t reinvent or fabricate that history into some other building in some other place. As for possibly doing something similar somewhere else, sure that could be done, but it wouldn’t be called Flora-Bama, and while the structure, laid-back style, and business model might be possible to replicate, the history and heart of the place just can’t be.“
I know you guys have a pretty good model built with the mid-size shows you are now putting on after the massive success of the Flora-Bama Jama that you guys and Kenny were able to pull off. Tell me a little more about the current concert format.
“You know, we really pulled off something so cool with Flora-Bama Jama. To be able to have 30,000 people on the beach at a concert, in the hot sun, with alcohol, and not have one single arrest or even a fight reported. Just the logistics alone of that event were monumental. Kenny and I rented 500 buses from all over the country just to get people in and out from various event parking points all over the area. It was just so awesome, and we learned a lot from it that we can now use for the smaller shows we do. Right now we’re putting on about a dozen of those a year, with around 5,000 concertgoers at each.”
Who are some of the better-known artists you’ve hosted recently?
“We recently had Riley Green, Justin Moore, and Billy Currington, and we’ve got some really cool ones lining up for future dates. Your readers can always find all our live music schedules, on our website too.”
Speaking of future, what does the future of Flora-Bama hold?
“I get asked that a lot. Really, we just want to make it better, but do that by just continuing to do what we are doing… because it’s worked. There’s nothing cookiecutter about it. Our goal is just to keep people having a good time and telling other people about it. We are working on more off-season events and activities to come.”
How many people a day do you get through the Flora-Bama doors on average?
“We have about 5,000 people a day come through in season, which now is pretty much spring-break to late October, and seems to be getting longer each year.”
Any parting words you want to leave our readers with, anything you want them to know?
“The experience is what it’s all about. If you’ve been there you know, and those who haven’t need to just experience it for themselves. It’s what keeps people coming back, and why our patrons tell others about it. The Flora-Bama is probably the most authentic beach bar in the world. But, don’t take my word for it, just come out and see for yourself.”
This article appears in the inaugural issue of 30A’s Beach Happy Magazine. Look for Beach Happy magazine at Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Publix, Kroger and other major outlets nationwide, as well as in high-traffic locations along the Gulf Coast. Subscribe now to get print issues delivered to your home or enjoy the free digital edition.