The owner of the new Swamp Restaurant aims to bring a Gainesville tradition back to life
When Peter McNiece graduated in 1990 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Gainesville native moved back home and worked at The Swamp Restaurant, formerly on University Avenue.
McNiece's life was changed by a simple back-of-house manager job. Ron DeFilippo, the owner of The Swamp at the time, introduced him to Kirsty Freshwater, a server and bartender.
“She did stand out,” McNiece said. “A little out of my league, to be honest, but I took a chance.”
Seven years later, DeFilippo officiated Kirsty and Peter’s wedding. The couple still lives in Gainesville today.
Over its 26-year run at 1642 University Ave., The Swamp served up countless stories and memories like McNiece's before it was demolished and replaced with an apartment building. This summer, the Swamp Restaurant will reopen in a new location on Southwest Second Avenue, and the new owner Ryan Prodesky wants to maintain what made the old location so special.
“I hope that we're able to deliver a product to them that is familiar and then also improved,” Prodesky said. “The goal is to recreate those magical moments that people experience throughout their college (years).”
When the old one-story house-turned-restaurant was torn down, the owners of the property originally wanted to put The Swamp on the first floor of the apartments owned by 908 Group. However, Prodesky felt the restaurant deserved better.
“The Swamp had that home feel to it,” Prodesky said. “It didn't feel right going on under apartments. It wasn't the right choice.”
There was statewide outcry when the original building was demolished. A member of the Florida House of Representatives, Anthony Sabatini, actually tried to make the original restaurant a historic landmark so it wouldn't be demolished.
Matt Luedecke, director of commercial assets at Trimark Properties, contacted Prodesky about building a two-story building in a new location on Second Avenue.
“I reached out to Ryan and said, ‘Hey, we have this crazy idea, we want to rebuild The Swamp for you all, make it a little bit better, but maintain the character of the original building,’” Luedecke said.
Prodesky was open to discussing the idea, and the two sides reached an agreement. Their decision to build adjacent to the Innovation District was strategic, as they wanted to recreate the more quiet atmosphere of the original restaurant when it opened in 1994. The Swamp will sit at 1104 SW Second Ave., which Luedecke described as a quieter, more walkable street akin to University Avenue of the 1990s.
A tentative opening date for the restaurant is estimated for early August, and Prodesky doesn't anticipate any delays.
As apartment buildings continue to sprout up all across the city, Luedecke said The Swamp’s new location is a way to recapture some of the college town’s charm.
“Gainesville is growing, and that's great and that's important,” Luedecke said. “We need to grow as more people move to the city. But we have to maintain some of the character of what people enjoyed about Gainesville. This is an opportunity where we can do that.”
The pair began work in 2020 and fortunately did not face production issues due to COVID-19, as they were still in the design process at that point, Prodesky said.
While they plan to recreate most aspects of the old restaurant, Prodesky and Luedecke also want to update it and add new amenities the old building didn’t have. These include a larger kitchen, updated bathrooms and more parking options along with the Founder’s Club.
The Founder's Club will be a private membership area on the second floor of The Swamp. The idea was inspired by older alumni and Bull Gators, who suggested the room to Prodesky during the design process. The area will be a designated spot for members who have called The Swamp home, serving as a more private, intimate setting during the football season. The interior of the building will be about 20% larger than the old location.
Students and residents of Gainesville will have the opportunity to find jobs in the Swamp starting this month. The restaurant will employ between 60 and 80 people, depending on the season.
McNiece said his wife worked her way through college at The Swamp and was able to graduate without any student loans because of the hours she put in there.
“She'll tell you that's the best outcome from The Swamp, not the fact that she met me, but the fact that she was able to graduate with no student debt,” McNiece said jokingly.
McNiece also said he still keeps in contact with coworkers he spent long nights with at The Swamp over 20 years ago.
“It's like going to boot camp,” he said. “You know, you guys are all suffering together on bad days and having a great time on game days... You created some really lifelong friends.”
It has blown Prodesky away how much the public supports their efforts in rebuilding The Swamp, and he said he believes they're bringing people something they'll appreciate.
“It's very rare that you get those opportunities,” Prodesky said. “Usually when they knock something down or take the building out, that business has gone forever. I've seen it time and time over Gainesville, and it's a unique opportunity to be able to bring back and establish your place.”
Prodesky hopes the new restaurant will have the same impact on this generation of students that it did on his generation.