By JIMMY PETERS
Arcadian Hometown Editor
I must have driven past that bright orange bar on State Road 70 heading west out of town at least 100 times. Sometimes the parking lot was empty, other times I bet there were 200 motorcycles out front. I was never excited about going in. It is a biker bar, you know, and maybe not the best place to spend an evening. Sometimes the stereotypes we pick up as kids, like visions of Hells Angels, linger with us.
Well ... it’s time to break that mold.
I don’t know what I expected as I walked up to the front door of Fire’s Open Road ... but it was not being greeted with a smile and a “come on in, what can I do for ya” coming from Elaine “Fire” James, the owner. The first thing I noticed inside was the couple sitting at the bar turning toward me, smiling and nodding hello.
The interior was inviting, dark at first, having come in from the bright sunlight outside, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the colorful displays behind the bar. To the left was a row of coolers with glass doors and I bet 40 different kinds of beer, all neatly arrayed by brewery, ready for thirsty customers. To the right were brightly lit rows of liquor bottles, ready for mixing. At one end of the room was a small stage for the live bands that play from time to time, at the other end a pooltable.
I sat down on a stool next to one of the stand-up tables and invited Fire to my temporary office. The first thing I asked about was kids footwear hanging from a wire above the bar. “We just delivered a load of shoes that stretched down the entire length of the bar,” Fire said. “This is a fundraiser that we hold for foster and sheltered kids through Guardian ad Litem. When children are separated from their parents, they are sometimes taken to foster homes in the middle of the night with no time to pack a suitcase. They can at least have a new pair of shoes to wear the next day,” she explained. Each year Fire and her patrons contribute 500 pairs of shoes of all sizes to DeSoto kids through this great program.
Open Road is also involved in “Operation Outdoor Freedom,” a program for military veterans. Also, Fire added, “Every year through Community Christian Fellowship we give Christmas gifts to kids in need. The bikers line up and drive to the church with their lights flashing, then Santa arrives and passes out bags of toys, each with the child’s name on it.”
Here’s the backstory on another Open Road symbol. One day a lady wanted to tape a dollar bill to the ceiling with her name printed on it. Fire reluctantly said yes, and today the ceiling is covered with dollar bills, signed by the owners, remembering weddings, fundraisers, in memory of loved ones, or just happy times. Fire has never taken them down.
Fire purchased Open Road in 2010.
“We are a biker bar, where everyone is welcome. We are big into benefits and fundraisers. We do birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, memorial services, we even had a baby shower here, you name it,” she said. “We all strive to be better people today than we were yesterday.”
Motorcycles were a part of Fire James’s life from an early age. She has been a bartender for 45 years and nine years ago decided it was time she had her own place. “Now we have become a destination point, bikers stop in all the way from Naples to St. Pete and Ft. Lauderdale,” Fire said.
Open Road offers a pork chop dinner Thursday nights, pork chops, hamburgers and hot dogs on the weekend. There’s karaoke on Thursday and Saturday nights, plus live music from time to time.
I’m glad I got to meet Fire. She dispelled an image of “bikers” that I have carried since the ‘60s — and that was my fault. The next time I see 200 motorcycles in front of Open Road, I will go in, have a pork-chop dinner, and make a new friend.
And bring shoes for a kid in a bad situation.