John Browning is trading his grill top for a golf cart.
Browning has sold 3 Fishermen North Fort Myers after 20 years of being a Lee County restaurateur. Browning explained that 3 Fishermen will continue to be known as the 3 Fishermen concept and name by its new operators. They are Dante’s Coal Fired Kitchen, Bluwave Lobster House, and Bluwave Lobster House, both in Fort Myers.
The sale marks the end of an era for this longtime local who’s become known not only for his seafood but also his charitable work.
Browning opened the original 3 Fishermen with his brother Paul Browning and business partner Dan Miller in the Sam’s Club plaza on U.S. 41 in Fort Myers in August 2001, traditionally one of the slowest dining months of the year in the area. Two weeks after opening, 9/11 struck.
“We went from slow to dead,”Browning is remembered.
They were all at loss for ideas on how to run their new business. Then, The News-Press’s pseudonymous food critic, “Jean Le Boeuf,” wrote a review, and their place went from empty to standing-room-only.
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“Throughout my career there have been a few flukes that changed the path of the way things happened to me, and that was the first,”Browning spoke. “It gave me optimism.”
This positive outlook was achieved through hard work and patience.
Browning’s family moved to Southwest Florida in the 1960s, when he was an infant. Unbeknownst of it at the time, Crystal River Seafood would be instrumental in Browning’s career.
He graduated from college and was offered a position at Hooters, where he managed the Fort Myers Beach store. Hooters’ late owner David “Lags” Lageschulte bestowed advice upon Browning that stuck: Preparation + opportunity = success.
Browning’s dream was to open his own seafood restaurant, so he left his career at Hooters and returned to Tallahassee where he took a job at his old favorite, Crystal River Seafood.
“That was part of my preparation,”He said. He was then offered the job of vice president operations after two years. Browning refused to accept the job and returned home to Fort Myers in pursuit of his dreams.
Browning’s brother and father were retired ministers. The 3 Fishermen name was chosen in their honor. Pictures of the trio, rods and reels in hand, hung on the restaurant’s walls. Browning was able to succeed in 18-table Sam’s Club’s original space and began looking for opportunities.
But when the opportunity arose to take over the restaurant at the base of the Best Western on the Caloosahatchee in North Fort Myers, he almost missed out.
“I had been waiting for the right space but thought this one would be an uphill battle,” he said. Still, he halfheartedly crossed the river to take a look.
“How did I not realize this was here?”He asked the same question as before, while he leaned against the glass looking out at the water.
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In January 2011, three months later, he opened doors for the 3rd Fishermen. Browning recognized that this was a unique place, with rustic open-air seating and a great view over Fort Myers.
The leaky valve was repaired by the surgeon three years later. “It did not go perfectly,”He stated. The procedure left him with additional health problems and a pacemaker as a souvenir.
“It makes you realize you’re not going to live forever,”Browning spoke. “Giving back and doing for others, mentoring my employees, became the real focus of what I did after surgery.”
Tatum Walker, a former 3 Fishermen server and manager, was a beneficiary of that mentoring.
“He would ask me if I had opened a Roth IRA yet,”She said. “He helped us grow and make life improvements. He was like family, someone to trust and lean on.”
Walker is a Lee County business development specialist.
Browning didn’t lose his drive because of the surgery. A year after his recovery, in 2015, he bought the iconic Clancey’s restaurant on McGregor Boulevard in south Fort Myers. Clancey’s was sold earlier in the year to help him focus on his retirement. Browning ended the lease at 3 Fisherman in 2016, and closed it down.
For the first time in two decades, Browning is entering tourist season and the New Year without having to worry about staffing shortages or the price of ingredients. He plans to hit the road, follow the LPGA tour for a bit, and golf some of the most famous courses around the world.
“He has been invested 100% in the restaurants since day one,”Walker stated. “He deserves to have some time to relax and travel. I’m excited to see him grow on his own in retirement.”
During this Thanksgiving, Browning said he’s thankful for many things: the work ethic his parents taught him; the loyal customers who came back week after week, year after year; the opportunity to influence the lives, personally and financially, of so many of the people he’s employed.
“I’m happy to do it,” he said. “It’s never been work for me. The hard part will be to not come in.”
Gina Birch writes about food and wine for The News-Press and at thebirchbeat.blogspot.com. Follow her as @ginabirch on Twitter and find her on Facebook.
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