"Here at Sidelines, we have what we call the seventeen second rule," said Laurie Whittaker, co-owner with Marty Kildea of Sidelines, the popular gay owned and operated Wilton Manors, Florida, sports bar.
Before a definition of that rule could be supplied, came the first of a constant string of cordial interruptions from patrons and staff of the friendly watering hole where everyone actually does know your name and the names of Laurie and her partner of thirty years, Jennifer Morales, who handles public relations for the bar.
The affection and dedication that Laurie and Jennifer express for each other while telling their story is infectious and certainly a prime reason for the success of a bar that received a singular honor on July 27th when the City Commission issued a proclamation honoring the bar's fourth anniversary.
Four years in business is no small accomplishment in a world in which 80% of small businesses fold in their first year, but thirty years as a couple is a greater one. Jennifer and Laurie laugh, kiss, joke and finish each other's sentences when telling their love story.
"We met on October 18, 1980, through mutual friends at a party. We did the lesbian U-Haul thing and moved in together within a week." Whether Jennifer or Laurie said this is unimportant. They are two happy voices of one beautifully fused woman. Theirs is the only longterm relationship either has ever had.
Their union has not been without its trials.
When their parents found out about the relationship that Christmas, Laurie's Irish Catholic family shunned her, and Jennifer's family reacted with denial. The couple proceeded to solemnize their relationship in 1981 at the MCC church in Tallahassee. Their families have long since discarded their misgivings, preferring to love and accept them completely.
Along the way, Jennifer acquired a degree in music. Here, Laurie jumps in to say, "Jennifer has a hell of a voice. That's how the woman got to me, like a songbird."
In 1989, the couple moved to Fort Lauderdale. Jennifer began a career in the tourism industry and Laurie entered law school, eventually joining her father's practice. About her work as a lawyer, Laurie says, "In criminal law you see bad people on their best behavior. In family law, you see good people on their worst behavior."
When her father died in 1999, Laurie began to desire a serious career change. It had always been their dream to own the kind of friendly and inclusive bar that Sidelines has become. They brought to the new venture some experience. Laurie had been a head bartender and Jennifer had been a waitress at a bar in Orlando. They were determined to make their own bar comfortable and one with no room for standing, posing or giving attitude. Their plans were complicated by a serious illness that beset Jennifer. She developed pulmonary hypertension and a progressive neurological condition called ataxia that impacts balance and movement and has left her in need of a walker. Doctors have told her to expect her mobility to deteriorate, and as often as Laurie looked to them for hope, the prognosis was gloomy. They refused to consider the possibility of failure in both health and in business, with Jennifer saying to Laurie, "Honey if we're going to do this, we have to do it right. We need to brand. That's what I can do."
Laurie had made the acquaintance of Marty Kildea, who was in the concrete business at the time, through a pool league. She remembers their being across the street from what was then a bar called Circuits. "I told Marty that you never see anyone go in there. We walked across the street, talked to the owner, made an offer and bought it."
Jennifer is clear about why Sidelines became immediately successful. "Our mantra has always been that this is a place where anyone can feel normal, comfortable and relaxed. Sure, it's a gay bar, but our loyal clients include men, women, gay and straight. In fact, we've even had two straight marriage proposals happen in our bar." She and Laurie are proud of Sidelines' strong community involvement. "Over the last four years, Sidelines has contributed to many of Wilton Manors' charitable organizations and major fundraising events, such as The Smart Ride, in which Team Sidelines in its first year raised over $40,000. Since 2006, Sidelines has sponsored the Florida AIDS Walk which generates awareness and support to many of South Florida's HIV/AIDS program initiatives."
Their recipe for success? "We went through the usual business planning and projections, but basically we wanted a comfortable, clean Cheers-like environment. Fun and friendly. It took off in year one. Now we have very loyal customers who have been with us since day one. We have the best staff who know the meaning of customer service."
That seventeen second rule? Marty trained the original staff, three of whom are still with the bar, to greet, shake hands with and introduce to others all new arrivals within that time frame. That had indeed been my experience having arrived early at the bar for my meeting with Laurie and Jennifer on a very busy afternoon during last minute preparations for the final Cook-Off Championship. The winner of that competition, James Morris, typified the spirit of Jennifer and Laurie by donating his grand prize, a deluxe BBQ grill, to Poverello's.
Jennifer and Laurie's happiness is insurmountable as they make plans for their anniversary and for Laurie's fiftieth birthday. "When Jennifer got sick, I made her promise me three things. Fight the good fight. Never give up, and give me all the sex I want." In business and in love, these wise women will win you over, even more than the free-flowing popcorn and comfortable chairs that await you at Sidelines.
For more information about Sidelines events: www.sidelinessports.com
(Check out South Florida Gay News for this and other LGBT news from South Florida.)