December 21, 2014

Profile: Capt. Brien sets sail for Bonita Springs

Brien Spina's Off the Hook Comedy Club is relocating to Bonita Springs, where he has grand plans for creating a "high-end performing arts-style center."

Craig Hildebrand

Brien spina is not a funny guy.

That’s according to him, at least. We would be inclined to disagree; sit with Spina for an hour and you’ll have plenty of laughs. But after eight years in the comedy business, there’s one thing Spina insists: He’s an entrepreneur, not a comedian. He prefers to leave the one-liners to big names such as Kevin Hart, Tom Green and Carlos Mencia, all who have appeared at Spina’s Marco Island restaurant/venue, Off The Hook Comedy Club.

But if Spina missed his calling on the stage, he’s certainly found it behind the scenes. Off The Hook has outgrown its island environs and will relocate to Bonita Springs in December, opening in a new, 27,000-square-foot entertainment complex located on four acres at the corner of Bonita Beach Road and Imperial Parkway. Capt. Brien’s Seafood and Raw Bar, which has been home to Off The Hook since 2005, will remain on Marco Island.

Bonita Springs appealed to Spina in part because of its central location, which will make it easier for comedy addicts from across Southwest Florida to get their funny fix.

“The restaurant typically has a local draw and an island feel and appeal,” Spina explains. “For the comedy we do such big names, and the shows really draw from the whole region.”

The new facility won’t be simply for stand-up, either. Envision a “high-end performing arts-style center,” Spina says, one that will welcome a range of artists, including musical and theatrical performances. Spina is already looking ahead to other ways he can assist the local community with its performance needs. In November, he founded a nonprofit, Southwest Florida Performing Arts & Cultural Learning Center, with his father and Off The Hook partner Santo Spina.

“Comedy is still going to be the backbone of the facility, but we’re looking to reach out to different companies to host conferences, weddings, different receptions, because the facility will be built for that,” Spina says. Inside the new Off The Hook, patrons will find a 650-seat dinner theatre that can convert to hold 1,100. There will be two restaurants, as well as a 40-foot sangria waterfall in the lobby. The center will also be home to what Spina describes as a “podcast café,” where guests may enjoy coffee and dessert—then, settle in and produce their own professional-grade podcast. He calls the concept the "world’s first,” and expects it to appeal to everyone from college students to local business people who want to give their company a techie edge.

“I’m an ideas guy,” Spina says of the new Off The Hook. “And I have a new idea every day. A lot of them I act on. Some of them really tank. But, typically, if I say I’m going to do something, I do it. Whether it’s a home run or not, I usually swing for the fence.”

Fortunately, Off The Hook was not an idea destined to tank. Now 37, Spina opened his first restaurant on Marco Island in 2001. In 2005, the restaurant moved and expanded to include the comedy club, an addition that Spina says was met with a degree of skepticism by some. But he believed it could work. Originally from the Boston area, Spina reflected on the role that comedy clubs played in the city’s entertainment scene.

“Comedy was really a popular form of entertainment and still is,” he says. “We thought we would do something like that down here.”

At first, Spina juggled the restaurant, the comedy club and his original career, operating a fleet of charter fishing boats (hence his nautical title). He sold the fleet in 2007 and was able to focus on learning the comedy business, including how to book his own acts. Initially, he relied on an agent, but once Off The Hook had been open for two years, he felt confident to assume that responsibility.

“I started eating, sleeping and breathing comedy those two years, to really learn the ins and outs of the comedy world,” Spina says.

Spina admits he doesn’t remember the name of every comedian who has graced the Off The Hook stage, but he can quickly tick off some of the heaviest hitters. Kevin Hart sold out at Off The Hook, shortly before going on tour; Spina says Hart even wrote part of the routine for one of his comedy
specials while he was at the club. Another big victory was when Spina snared MTV star Steve-O for his first live show. The appearance at Off The Hook coincided with the premiere of his latest film.

“He was No. 1 in the theatres and at our club,” Spina recalls. “That was just a one-time phenomenon.”

Part of what attracts the comedians is the actual club, Spina says. For many of the bigger names, it’s a chance to return to an intimate setting similar to where they started their career. Then there are the perks of performing in paradise. Many of the comedians will request uniquely tropical amenities in their contracts, such as a guarantee they’ll get to go jet skiing.

Now with the upcoming expansion, there is no comedian Spina believes he can’t lure to Off The Hook.

“There’s no wishing. They’re coming,” he says. “The wishing’s done.”

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