LOCAL TIES: White, a Rays fan, once almost took a job in St Pete and has a son living in Tierra Ceia. Photo: Howard Walker

Doc Ford's is opening. Meet Randy Wayne White, the man who thought Doc up.

 You’re going to want to try the Yucatan shrimp (right). Steamed peel-’n-eat morsels of tanginess, they’re slathered in a dressing of butter, cilantro and garlic with mild Colombian chilies and a squeeze of Key lime juice. They’re the best. 

“It’s my favorite thing on the menu, and our signature dish. Just make sure you order it with extra sauce.”

The culinary recommendation comes from none other than Randy Wayne White, adventurer, author of the beloved Doc Ford series, and partner in the laid-back Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille restaurant chain. 

Doc Ford’s St Pete under construction in April…
… and ready to open in July.

Expect Yucatan shrimp to be the must-have dish at its newest outpost, the Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on the brand new St. Pete Pier. Opening July 6 along with the rest of the Pier, it’s going to be big. Literally. There’ll be seating for 450 in a 9,000-square-foot-plus space beneath that ski-slope roof, with more seats outside on huge covered decks. You’ll find this bright, airy eatery-on-stilts on the south side of the new 26-acre, $90 million Pier, occupying the site of the former Pelican parking lot. With views across to the city marina and Albert Whitted Airport, it’s a primo spot.

 Inside it’ll have the same Old Florida look and feel of the other Doc Fords on Captiva, Sanibel and Ft. Myers Beach. That means plenty of Randy Wayne White framed book covers, posters, t-shirts and memorabilia, along with local art and stuffed-and-mounted fish on the walls. Good Buffett-style live music, too. 

We catch up with the prolific writer at his sprawling Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Sanibel Island, perched on a barstool in an upstairs room, signing copies of his newest Doc Ford romp, Salt River. It’s his 26th book since his first, Sanibel Flats, hit the bookstands in 1990.

White at a book signing in Sanibel. Photo: Howard Walker

“I’m really excited about opening a Doc Ford’s in St. Pete. I love the city. Something big has changed there; it’s now so vibrant compared to a few years back. Mayor Kriseman has done a fabulous job of changing the image.

“And is it me, or does everyone in St. Pete these days look younger, healthier, better-looking and seem to be having more fun?” he jokes.

White explains how he came close to becoming a St. Pete resident back in the late1980s, when he got a call from the editor of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). 

“I think it was 1983 or ’84. I was a full-time fishing guide spending my spare time writing stories for magazines like Outside and Rolling Stone. The editor called me and said the paper had an opening for a columnist. 

“I drove up one Sunday and we talked about the job. Sounded pretty interesting. But then we got around to money. I wasn’t making much as a fishing guide, but his offer was about half what I was earning. I said he really needed to come up by at least $20 a week. 

He passed. 

“To this day, I never cross the Sunshine Skyway bridge without thinking how close I came to living and working in St. Pete. Who knows, it may have turned out better?” 

Pity he didn’t get the job, as White, who’s just checked off his 70th birthday, would have had some amazing stories to tell. Born in Ohio in 1950, he moved to Florida in his early twenties — “when I had a full set of hair and thought beer was a food.”

He earned himself a captain’s license in 1974, bought a flats boat and began a career as a light-tackle fishing guide, averaging over 300 charters a year — more than 3,000 in 14 years — fishing the skinny waters around Captiva and Sanibel. 

He’s also been deep-sea diving with Soviet divers in Cuba, took a 55-foot grouper boat to Cuba during the Mariel Harbor boat-lift ferrying 147 refugees back to the U.S., got stabbed in Peru, started a business importing hot sauce from Colombia, and swam across Tampa Bay on his 50th birthday to raise money for the SEAL Foundation. That was in January 2000, on a day when the weather was 35 degrees and sleeting. 

How did he manage to add “author” to his resume? He tells the story about when, back in 1988, the government closed Sanibel’s Tarpon Bay, where he was based, to all powerboat traffic. It essentially put him out of business. 

While he continued chartering out of local hotels, by night he furiously tapped away at an old Underwood typewriter and tried to make a living as a novelist. With two young sons to support, failure was not an option. 

“I’d been working at the craft of writing throughout my fishing career, and I’d had some luck. I’d sold a few articles to major magazines, and wrote a bunch of potboiler thrillers under pen names. 

“It was a tough time. I remember one prospective literary agent warning me: ‘Don’t quit your day job,’ unaware that I no longer had a day job.” 

But he persisted, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today he’s a New York Times best-selling author living in Sanibel and married to sultry singer/songwriter Wendy Webb, and he’s sitting at the computer keyboard pretty much seven days a week. 

In addition to the thrillers based around Doc Ford and his eccentric buddy Tomlinson in Sanibel’s semi-fictional Dinkin’s Marina, he’s currently penning a series of young adult novels under the banner Sharks Incorporated. The first in the series, Fins, is out this fall. 

He reckons his latest Doc Ford adventure, Salt River, is his best yet. 

“People accuse me of saying whatever new book I come out with is my best. That’s not true. I’ve written some I’m not wild about. But this is one of my all-time favorites. 

“There are actually three endings spaced throughout the novel. The big one is in the last sentence of the last page, which changes everything.” 

Interestingly, St. Pete features prominently in the book. He writes about Doc Ford dropping off his boat at O’Neill’s Marina on the north side of the Skyway Bridge. About hanging out in the lobby bar of the Vinoy Hotel. Spending time at Fort De Soto. 

When it comes to the restaurant side of the business, White is happy to let his partners at Ft. Myers-based HM Restaurant Group take care of the day-to-day running. That said, he does keep an eye on what’s being served up. 

“The food has to be great, and it is. While someone might come in once because they like my books, we want them to keep coming back. And trust me, once you’ve tasted the Yucatan shrimp, you’ll be back.”