The Independent: Seminole Heights Pub Pours World's Beers For Friendly Crowd

Drive by The Independent in Tampa's Seminole Heights on any given evening and you'll likely see a crowd, sitting at wooden tables, or standing in clusters – hanging out, drinking glasses of beer or wine – and talking.

A convivial crowd can be found inside, drinking, laughing and having a good time.

It's exactly the kind of vibe that owner Veronica Vellines was hoping to create when she and her husband, John, opened The Independent, a craft beer hall and garden a year ago at 5016 N. Florida Ave.

The Seminole Heights' gathering spot is patterned after The Independent at 29 Third St. N. in St. Petersburg, which the couple opened five years ago.

Both pubs have the same mantra:  Independent: Bieres. Vins. Music. Thought.

When they were planning to set up their first location in St. Petersburg, the couple wanted it to reflect their general attitude about life, beer and wine, Vellines said.

She and her husband lived in Munich for a year, and then traveled around Europe, sampling beers at beer gardens and beer halls. They moved to New York, where John worked for a beer importer, before they landed in St. Petersburg and set up their own place.

"We had in mind the kind of place we wanted to open and a lot of people told us we couldn't make it without Coors Lite and Bud Lite and Guinness," Vellines said.

"We said, "We're going to try because we believe that these other products are better, and they're not well-known and (we want) to try to get people to discover these delicious beers, to broaden their horizons.

 "We try to represent every style of beer available," says Vellines, who subscribes to the theory that most people who do not like the taste of beer simply haven't tried the right one.

"We don't sell any big commercial beer products. We have beer from the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania. We're trying to carry a nice collection of American, craft, micro-brews," added Vellines. The domestic assortment includes some from local brewer Cigar City Brewing.

Among the pub's most popular offerings are Cigar City Jai Alai, Triple Karmeliet, Okocim Lager, Lagunitas Pale Ale, Ephemere and Lion Stout.

Creative Loafing Tampa named The Independent "Best New Restaurant'' in its 2010 Best of the Bay contest. ''The Independent Seminole Heights has Christopher Tolan in the kitchen putting small but meaningful touches on a simple menu of exceptional bar food, making each dish into something special, creating an experience that both suits and transcends the humble nature of the restaurant,'' CL wrote.

Customers say they appreciate the variety and flavors of beer, and of food.

"Every time we come in here, there's something different," says Steve Myers, who has a business across the street.

"The beers are great," agrees Dominic Cianciola, who lives in Southeast Seminole Heights. "You don't see any brand name beers, corporate brand-name, I should say. You can always indulge yourself in something that is different and interesting."

At a nearby table, Carol Jean Jones and Suzanne Blakewell were enjoying a glass of wine. They were glad to have a neighborhood spot where they can just hang out.

"You can't have enough places in the neighborhood like this," Blakewell says.

"I like the fact that you can sit outside. I like being in the fresh air and you can watch the clouds go by. You can people watch,'' Jones says.

Meanwhile, inside, people are laughing and telling stories, as they sit around a table heartily enjoying glasses of beer.

Welcome To The Neighborhood

Vellines said she's thrilled with the reception the business is getting from patrons.

"I'm really enjoying it and I'm very humbled by it, as well. It is so well-received, and they say such nice things. They really appreciate it," she says.

She said she and her husband decided to look for a location in Seminole Heights at the urging of some of their St. Pete customers who had been making the trek from Tampa.

"They were saying "We need you over here (Seminole Heights)." We decided it was a good idea," said Vellines, who oversees the Tampa location while her husband oversees the one in St. Pete.

Vellines attributes The Independent's following to its diverse mix of patrons, young and young-at-heart – something she encourages and embraces.

"We want to be a place where people feel really comfortable coming, no matter what they are wearing—if it is for a business meeting, or a concert, or just to hang out with friends," Vellines says.
 
When all kinds of people gather at the same place, people wind up helping each other out, she says, speaking from first-hand experience. A lot of customers become friends, or soon end up doing business with each other. Indeed, she met her dentist, her acupuncturist and one of her contractors at The Independent in St. Pete.

The couple has invested about $700,000 in the Seminole Heights business, which occupies a building that used to be a graphics studio and sign shop and in another previous incarnation was a gas station.

Mixing In Music And Pastries

The north side of the building is a beer hall, with a beer garden out front. The south side is a combination coffee shop and café. The coffee shop serves an assortment of coffees and pastries. The cafe's menu, which expand this summer, includes salads, sandwiches, pretzels, cheese plates, sausages, veggie burgers and daily specials.

The beer house also has jazz on the first Saturday of the month, dart tournaments on the first Sunday and bluegrass on third Sunday of each month. Vellines calls the bluegrass sessions, "Sunday School for Sinners."

Besides having two locations for The Independent, Vellines and her husband recently acquired The Rex, at 2061 Central Ave. 

They hadn't planned on buying the pub, but the opportunity came along. It, too, serves craft beers and it is managed by Dan Schmidt, who previously worked at The Independent in St. Pete.

Vellines is an attorney who is making the transition from the life of a lawyer to that of a full-time business owner. She's enjoying her role as an entrepreneur and readily notes that it offers its share of rich rewards.

 "I meet interesting people here (Seminole Heights) every day," she said."It's more than just opening a business and making money. It's about being part of the community."

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in South Seminole Heights. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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