When Steve and Leah Smith first bought Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in downtown Nashville, they had no idea how the Tennessee business would change their lives. The historical country music tavern that has helped launch many singing careers as well as inspire hit songs, has been a great adventure for this couple.
"It's probably been one of the best things we've ever done in our lives," says Steve. "It's been a lot of fun and we've met a lot of great people. We enjoy the country music business and have a great time."
Tootsie's was started by Tootsie Bess in 1960 and in 1992 the Smiths became the new owners of the famous lounge that just celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The celebration in November, which brought a lot of country music stars back to help celebrate, was held at the Ryman Auditorium. The star-studded concert was a love-fest to the legendary lounge, and fans were treated to some stellar performances in a unique tribute to the longtime Music City institution.
"There are very, very few places in the world that have the same history as Tootsie's has; it's right up there with the Opry itself," says Terri Clark, who got her first job in Nashville at Tootsie's playing for tips. "It's a brick in the foundation of country music."
But one thing the Smiths quickly discovered is the challenges of owning an establishment with so much history to it.
"Changing anything at Tootsie's is a challenge," says Leah with a smile. "You're not allowed to change anything. If you move one thing you'll have everyone calling and telling you not to move it because it's been there forever."
Having Their Say
But one thing the Smiths did have a say in was how to customize their dream boat to help celebrate Tootsie's 50th anniversary in their own way. Last year Steve and Leah took their ideas to Sharpe Houseboats and the result was a 20- by 102-foot full body houseboat.
Appropriately named Tootsie's Treat, the custom Sharpe houseboat is the ideal getaway for the couple who loves to host clients and friends.
"We do quite a bit of entertaining on this boat," says Steve. "From radio and television people to country music artists. We never know who we're going to have up here."
When it came time to work out the details on the final floorplan, Steve and Leah had different ideas. They had looked at a couple of other houseboats for ideas, but they both came away with different perspectives of what needed to be accomplished with the design.
"She always wins," jokes Steve. "Actually this time we both got what we wanted. My main concern was I wanted two nice staterooms and her main concern is she wanted a big cuddy for the children underneath. So we figured out a way to make it work."
Obviously having over 100 feet to work with, plus the 20-foot width helps, but the couple went with a 6-inch deeper hull, which created a taller ceiling in the lower cuddies.
"Anyone building a boat, regardless of the length, I would recommend the deeper hull and the extra ceiling height," says Steve. "It just makes your boat feel so much roomier in your cuddies and on your main level. Plus sitting at the dock, your boat looks huge because it's taller than the boats around it."
A Noticeable Difference
The 8-foot, 6-inch ceilings truly make a difference with this design, giving the boat an open look and feel. The width also provides a larger salon area with more seating for the television, which was important to the Smiths. The hidden television cabinet is one feature they're glad they went with because it's out of the way when you're on the boat and not watching television, but accessible when you want it.
Other key layout features in the salon area include moving back the outside staircase so it's near the galley. By changing the location you now have a full view of the lake through the large salon windows. But moving the staircase back did more than improve the view; it also created even more storage space overall in the galley.
"There is great storage inside under the side stairs, plus the pantry is probably my favorite thing about the kitchen," says Leah. "You won't find this kind of storage space on most houseboats."
Other than his input for a large stateroom, Steve also wanted a half bath in the cabin in addition to the two full baths, but other than that he left his wife to design the boat from bow to stern, at least the interior features. "Now the exterior, that was left up to me; however, she wouldn't let me put my diving board on this one," says Steve. "She says it was too loud. But as far as the colors and decorating, she did all of that."
"Debbie Sharpe helped me out a lot," adds Leah. "It's kind of a neat process working with her. You just go in a room and start picking things out, I loved it."
With help from Debbie, who is the interior decorator at Sharpe, the art and décor that Leah was going for all came together nicely, creating a less formal setting.
"I just wanted it to be casual, not too formal so you can come in, put your feet up on the coffee table and eat popcorn," explains Leah. "You still want it to be livable, even though it's pretty."
Going With Sharpe
With a lot of houseboat manufacturers in the area, you might think the decision of which builder to go with would be a difficult process, but for the Smiths, going with Sharpe was an easy decision.
"I'd say Sharpe is the king of the houseboat builders today, definitely in this area," says Steve. "We worked with Brent [Fothergill] and Joe Sharpe really close and both of these guys did everything they could to help us tremendously."
Adds Leah, "At Sharpe, they really know what they're doing."
Sharpe Houseboats first entered the houseboat market in 1998 and has stated since day one that a happy customer is going to be their best salesperson in the marketplace. That's particularly good news for the Somerset, Ky.-based manufacturer when it came to working with the Smiths.
"When we had the chance to work with Steve and Leah we were very excited," recalls Joe Sharpe, president of Sharpe Houseboats. "Being experienced boaters, Steve and Leah knew what they wanted in their new floating home on the water and both were great at making a decision. And both are great supporters of our company and we have been lucky to continue a friendship that goes beyond boating with them."
Besides the great relationship between Sharpe Houseboats and the Smiths, there was also another person who deserves some recognition for helping make the experience as smooth as possible, and that would be broker Tony Ashley from Middle Tennessee Houseboat & Yacht Sales. Both Joe Sharpe and the Smiths recognized him as being very instrumental in the building process.
"Tony helped us a lot," says Steve. "Before when we built a boat we didn't have a broker go with us, but with Tony being involved it took a lot of pressure off of us. He did a good job working with Joe and Brent."
"If we ever have any problems you can call Tony and he'll help you through it and that means a lot right there," adds Leah. "We hear great things about Tony from everybody on the lake because he's one hard-working guy."
Why Pates Ford?
Located on Center Hill Lake in Smithville, Tenn., less than two hours from where the Smiths live, is a marina that is quickly becoming more and more popular. Although the Smiths didn't initially plan on docking their first houseboat here, there's no other place they'd rather be than at Pates Ford today.
"It's about and hour and a half drive. We could have taken 30 minutes off our drive by going to a different marina, but it's worth the extra time to be here," explains Leah. "It's just so much nicer up here and it's not nearly as congested or busy as it is on the other side of the lake.
James and Teresa Bradshaw are the managing partners at Pates Ford Marina and for James he knew the Smiths would be a good fit for the area, even though at first they were determined to be closer to Nashville.
"He bought a boat here years ago and when he made the deal he said he needed to leave the houseboat in the slip for just 30 days. I told him that if he stayed here 30 days he'd never leave," recalls James. "Now over 10 years later, he's still here and he's the owner of the dock. I knew he'd never leave."
James was one of five investors who bought the marina in 1999 when it had 84 slips total with just a handful of smaller houseboats. But then about a year and a half into it, two of the partners got out, and left James and the other two to run it. Even with two fewer partners they continued to build and today there are approximately 240 slips, with about 100 houseboat slips.
The two remaining partners were ready to retire in 2009 and ended up selling the marina to Steve and Leah. But a few days later after selling, James came back as a partner.
"I didn't know what I was going to do when I retired anyway and I figured I needed something to do so I'm back into it full time now," says James, who lives with his wife on a 92-foot houseboat next to the marina store.
Adds Leah, "James and Teresa are such great people that they make you feel welcome and so much so we became partners with them at the marina."
Steve didn't waste any time as he quickly went to work by building a new marina store, followed by a new restaurant called FISHLIPZ GRILL.
"Before we just had a little store that hardly had enough room for a Coke machine," says James. "The restaurant had three outside tables and it could maybe sit 50 inside. We started on the new restaurant in April 2010 and the garage doors help extend our season."
The garage doors aren't the only unique feature on the new restaurant that looks like it belongs more in Florida than in Tennessee.
"Once we got into taking the old down, Steve is the kind of guy that's ready to just do it and I'm all for that," says James. "New blood is good, but we're kind of the talk of the lake now with our six colors of paint that makes FISHLIPZ GRILL look like it belongs in Key West."
Tootsie's Treat 2?
The drive for making things bigger and better didn't stop with just the new look of Pates Ford Marina. Having an unquenchable drive has led to successful projects like creating a new Tootsie's in Panama City, Fla., nearly three years ago that Steve admits is quite a lot different that the one in Nashville.
"It's not historical of course, but when you go inside you feel like it's been there 50 years," says the owner. "We've done everything we could to put the same charm into it."
But having that drive also means looking ahead to possibly another custom-built houseboat in the near future.
"I wanted the interior colors to be neutral so we can sell it and build another one," says Leah with a smile. "I'm ready to go build another one and Sharpe is the ultimate place to go to build a boat."
Adds Steve, "There was a houseboat behind us in the production and this one was just about done and she walks back and says that she wanted that boat! I was shocked."
With plenty of room for entertaining as well as family fun for Steve, Leah and their four sons ranging from ages five to 30, what more could they possibly want in a houseboat that currently has a total of seven beds onboard? Well for starters, Leah would like the 102-foot boat to be a little bit longer.
"I'd like to add five or six feet onto the next one," says Leah. "I'd like to do a large scheme with the bedrooms and honestly I just enjoy the process of building a houseboat and I'm ready to do it again. There's nothing quite like building a new boat. It's very exciting and you get to go pick everything out piece by piece and then watch them put it together. It goes together so quickly that it's kind of like magic. It's awesome."
The next version of Tootsie's Treat could quite possibly be in the works, but only time will tell. But what the Smiths do know for sure is they now have a great Sharpe houseboat and the perfect place to dock it at Pates Ford Marina.
They can also appreciate their great connection with the country music industry thanks to their involvement with Tootsie's Orchid Lounge where a lot of dreams, including their own, originated.
For More Information
Middle Tennessee Houseboat & Yacht Sales
Pates Ford Resort & Marina
Tootsie's Orchid Lounge