The path to Don Bosko bringing the first Beef ‘O’ Brady’s restaurant to Lakeland in 1991 began with his working for free for a month before the chain’s owner granted him a franchise. This weekend, the 74-year-old restaurateur celebrates 30 years in business.
The celebration will be held at the Lakeland southside location, 4810 S. Florida Ave. in Lake Miriam Square. The all-day Sunday event will include a special menu that reflects the menu and pricing from 1991. There will be a family deal for $19.91 and giveaways. About two dozen of the original servers are expected to attend.
Bosko, a Lakeland resident, is credited to bringing the brand here. At one time, he owned 11 franchises. Now, semi-retired, he owns two: the locations on the north and south side of Lakeland; he is a co-owner of the location in Bartow.
Bosko opened his first Beef ‘O’ Brady’s in 1991. It was located at 5295 S. Florida Avenue, in the plaza near where Outback Steakhouse is located today.
Bosko said it was difficult to convince Jim Mellody, who founded the original Beef ’O’ Brady’s in Brandon, to allow him to open a franchise. He asked several times.
“Each time, he asked me to leave,” said Don Bosko.
But Bosko was convinced it was the right move. He had recently lost his job as a manager at Owens Corning, a fiberglass manufacturing company he’d work for the previous 18 years.
“They sold the division I worked for, and I had no job … two days before Christmas,” Don Bosko recalled.
At the time, he really enjoyed eating at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s with his family. “It was a family sports pub that [had] TVs. The kids enjoyed it because they had games for them,” said Bosko, estimating they’d visit the restaurant two to three times a month.
On his fourth attempt to convince Mellody, he spoke with Mellody’s wife instead, who knew him from church and his children’s school. She convinced her husband to listen to Bosko’s pitch.
“When I came in the next day, he was there at the breakfast table with his buddies, and he asked me into his office, and he slammed the door. I thought he was going to crack it,” Bosko recalled.
Bosko told Mellody he didn’t want a job, but instead wanted to run his own Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. He agreed to work for Mellody for free if he could work in the kitchen, learn the menu and how to operate the equipment. Mellody agreed to the deal and Bosko started working in the Brandon location the next day.
“I took out the garbage. I cleaned the fryers. I mopped the floor. I said, ‘Yes sir, no sir’ to anybody that was there. I just acted like an employee,” Bosko said. “When I was working for free, he shared with me numbers so I could go over a business plan … kind of anticipated what my sales would be.”
After working for free for about a month, Bosko believed it was worth the risk to open his own Beef ‘O’ Brady’s franchise, so he took most of his savings and sold $130,000 in stock that he acquired from his previous employer and used it to pay for his first restaurant. He figured he’d become profitable in three years. He admits it was quite the gamble, but worth it.
“It was the best thing that happened in my life,” Bosko said.
At the time, he was 41 years old and had a wife and four kids.
“It was very scary because … it was all the money that I had saved for the last 18 years,” Bosko said. “I tried to get loans, but no bank would give me a loan on a business because I had no business experience in a restaurant.”
His family all became employees. He leased the space for his first restaurant. It was 2,200 sq. feet and had 84 seats.
For his second location in north Lakeland at 1070 Wedgewood Estates Blvd., he bought the property in 1994 for $330,000, according to the Polk County Property Appraiser’s website. Bosko said he funded the purchase with a Small Business Association loan.
“I expanded real quick. I paid off that building in seven years. It was a 30-year loan. When I think about it, it’s all been crazy,” Bosko said.
Then, Hurricane Jeanne came along in 2004 and destroyed his first location.
“All of my restaurant went into a drainage pit in the back. It rained so hard it took away the driveway and the center of the plaza,” Bosko recalled.
He was devastated and even thought of quitting.
“That hurricane was a real kicker … I had just expanded it … Just put in a brand-new cooler. That was about $80,000. I lost my safe with about $15,000 in the safe because it all went into this pit,” Bosko said.
“After we had the hurricane, I said I think God wants me out of this store. I’m just going to quit. My kids rallied around Dad and said, ‘No, you need to reopen.’ ”
Fortunately, he had business interruption insurance. The insurance money funded his family’s salaries and the opening of the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s location that is still open today on the southside in Lake Miriam Square. It’s a much bigger space at 4,500 square feet and more than 200 chairs.
But not all his restaurants have been successful. He and a business partner had to close the Beef’s Express at Lakeside Village.
“It just never really took off. We had it for five years … It wasn’t making enough money for him or me, so we decided to … broke off the lease and move on,” Bosko explained.
The pandemic also threw him another curveball. Florida restaurants were ordered closed right before St. Patrick’s Day, their biggest day in business every year.
“I had already bought 50 kegs of beer. I don’t know how many cases of Irish whiskey and Irish beers and T-shirts and all kinds of giveaways,” Bosko said.
Bosko said they worked through that challenge like everything else.
He believes his values, attention to detail and making the restaurants family-friendly is what helped his brand grow throughout the years. He recalled calling the police on several customers for refusing to refrain from using explicit language in his establishment.
“I did not allow people to swear or cuss in my store,” Bosko said.
He’s also known for giving back, having volunteered for many service organizations and participated in the Margarita Ball for thirty years, Kiwanis Club, and serving as the board chair for Volunteers in Service to the Elderly for two years.
He credits his success to hard work, the community, his children Bill, Cara, Tim and Andy, and his wife, Linda.
“My wife always was with me all the time. She supported us in the ups and down … I had six burglaries that bust windows, try to steal your money, try to take your safe. Things that will just knock you down.”