PJ’s Oyster Bar on St. Pete Beach has the type of rubbery booths and LED fish decor that suggests that locals eat here, and locals know best.
Co-owner Kelli Umstead took time out of her afternoon to recommend the chilled stone crab and fried grouper while she told The Gabber PJ’s story.
Buying the joint was an obvious career path for Umstead, who grew up around the local seafood scene in Clearwater. Umstead’s father, a lawyer, kept his saltwater products license so he could provide fresh seafood for his family to his heart’s content, despite limits imposed on recreational anglers.
Umstead grew up on her father’s catches, worked at a Robin’s, a Clearwater fish market, and started fishing with him as a toddler in the late ‘60s. Her job was to catch fish and hook stone crab floats.
His love of the water instilled in her a love for fresh-caught fish.
Fast forward 30 years.
In 1998, Bret and Kelli, who met through a mutual friend, got married. Bret worked as a server at the St. Pete Beach PJ’s since 1993, a year after it opened. By the time Bret and Kelli wed, he’d worked his way up to bartender, then bar manager.
“We wanted to own a restaurant but the success rate for buying a restaurant and building from the ground up is so low,” Umstead said. “It’s so much overhead.”
The Umsteads told the former owners, Judy and “Mr.” Ed Rosicky, they’d buy PJ’s, if the Rosickys ever wanted to sell and the timing was right.
In 2007, the time was right for Judy and Mr. Ed and the Umsteads, who took out a second mortgage on their home and bought the business.
After some legalities – including nine hours of counting inventory – the Umsteads owned everything, down to the beer cans and booths, some of which still sport fish art done by the Vitale Brothers.
15 years later, the restaurant doesn’t look much different.
“We haven’t changed, changed anything,” Kelly said.
That includes some of the servers.
Longtime server and bartender Enoch Greiner has been with PJ’s for 13 years. Greiner started as a server two years after the Umsteads bought the place.
“It’s a comfortable atmosphere, [and] the owners are easy to get along with,” Greiner said. “It’s a mixed crowd, locals in the fall and northerners at the end of the year, and always tourists.”
The beer cooler is more stocked than ever (including local brews) and the seafood is as fresh as feasibly possible.
But really, PJ’s is about the family who runs it, their love of local seafood, and the staff who keep it going.