19:22 PM

Freddie Maldonado, Cigar City Brewing

There’s a good chance you were served by Freddie Maldonado if you dined at Tampa International Airport over the last few years. Or the last 15 years. Or in the ‘90s. Or in the ‘80s. 

The tall, gregarious server has been a favorite among TPA guests at various restaurants and bars all over the Airport, including the former Shula’s at Airside C and Columbia Restaurant at Airside E. He loved the Latin flair and music as he served drinks at Airside E’s old Casa Bacardi. He raked in the tips at the long-ago Main Terminal restaurant Jose Gasparilla’s in the late 1980s, and was a beloved bartender at the adjoining Veranda Bar throughout the ‘90s. He even worked at the old Airside D bar before the terminal was torn down, as well as the E bar before that terminal was replaced.

His favorite place, however, is where he is right now. He adores his managers and co-workers at Cigar City Brewing as if they were family, and he is proud of the local brand, which has Tampa-inspired flavors and its own on-site brewery at Airside C.

“How can it get better and better with each place I work?” Maldonado said. “But it does. I don’t know why I’m so lucky.”

The good fortune began the moment he walked into a door at TPA 30 years ago and, with a 2-month-old baby in his arms, asked the first person he saw for a job.

Born in New Jersey but mostly raised in Puerto Rico, Maldonado married at a young age and he and his bride and newborn baby moved from New Jersey to Tampa to escape the cold winters when he was 20. He remembers driving around town with his little family in tow before steering toward the Airport, parking outside of the hotel and finding a doorway to some offices. He said he was looking for a job. HMS Host gave him an application and an interview on the spot.

That was at 11 in the morning. By 3 p.m. that day, he was bussing tables at Jose Gasparilla’s. A few months after that, he began serving to make more money. A couple years after that, he started bartending at the Veranda Bar.

“From then on, my life changed forever,” Maldonado said.

The money was flowing, as this was back when the dining and drinking options were far fewer and the bar was always packed. He was making such a great living on tips and having so much fun, he quit his college classes to focus on his career with Host. He was able to buy some properties around the Tampa Bay area, and he met several customers who became so close to him, they offered him places to stay in Longboat Key, Chicago and New York City when he and his family needed a getaway.

As he’s watched TPA grow and change, including the major concessions redevelopment over the last few years, Maldonado has remained a favorite Host employee and he was treated to a fancy steak dinner and a ride around in a Maserati for his 25th anniversary. Jeff Yablun, HMS Host’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer and one of Maldonado’s favorite people, even flew in for it.

“He is my idol,” Maldonado said. “Because of his support, I’ve been able to have the success I have had.”

When the new Cigar City Brewing restaurant opened at Airside C earlier this year, Maldonado asked to be transferred there.

“Who doesn’t want to work at a great place like this?” Maldonado said, then gestured at the tall windows leading out to the Southwest gates and northeast airfield. “And who wouldn’t want to work with this view?”

Despite his colorful and outgoing personality, Maldonado prefers a more quiet and simple life at home. The tiny baby brought to TPA while job hunting is now a 30-year-old wife and mother, and Maldonado has a special bond with his 5-year-old granddaughter Gianna, whom he hovered over for seven days while she was a newborn in the NICU. She’s the greatest joy in his life, he said, along with his 3-year-old grandson Alejandro.

When he’s not waiting tables or spending time with his grandkids, he has one hobby he lists as his favorite thing to do: Mow his lawn.