Archive for the ‘advice on owning a bar’ Category

As the doors of the miscarried Blue Kat night club remain tightly locked with eviction and equipment lien papers taped firmly to them, the Handle Bar down in Greenacres struggles to open its doors after a gestation period that is now rivalling an elephant’s. Meanwhile, work on The Roadhouse, located at the old Hotteez, is going along at a brisk pace and looks like it could be ready to go as early as mid October.

It’s like Cindy Lauper wrote a song about: Money changes everything. Never is it more true than when it comes to getting a new place off the ground.

I met Jesse Martinez at the beginning of the summer when he called me up and asked if I would draw him a set of as-built plans for his portion of the Halpins building at Bowdish and Sprague. Things were going fine at that point and spirits were high. Jesse was spending money and having fun as he put together his hot spot, dreaming of the good times to come as soon as the Kat’s doors opened.

Turns out he had gotten the cart a bit out ahead of the horse, and had not dealt with some of the less fun aspects of his new venture like permits and regulations and inspectors. It was the one about having to put in a $16k sprinkler system that finally dowsed the flame and put an end to the party before it got started.

The truth is that Jesse probably never had the kind of money to make a nightclub out of the old Habitat for Humanity store. If $16k blew him out of the water, then he was dreadfully under capitolized. I tell people not to get into a nightclub-type venture unless you have a spare $250k you don’t mind gambling with. That is the number that was lost by all three of the nightclub owners that I knew well enough to talk to about their finances. Of the many others I have watched from a distance, I would guess that the numbers and percentages hold true across the board.

Some may have been able to get out quicker than others and so have lost less. Jesse’s exit was the quickest I have seen, considering he never made it to the entrance but that probably means he lost a whole lot less than some that gutted it out for 2 or three years.

The Handle Bar down at the old Hat Trick location looks like it should wobble its way to opening. I have known its owner, Frank Smith, for a very long time. The only thing that matches his ingenuity and creative energy is his abillity to overspend. He does everything with skillful flair and that usually costs top dollar. When The Handle Bar does open, it is going to be something to see.

Since it is a bar and not a night club, it is a good bit less risky. I personally think the best odds are to open a bar on a shoestring and then bootstrap your way through a slow, pay-as-you-go improvement process. Unless you’re someone with deep resources, like the guy down the road at The Roadhouse.

In a way, Fred Lopez is exactly like Jesse and Frank and myself and every one else that has opened up or bought any kind of hospitallity establishment. I would call owning a place the true American Dream. Look how many athletes and celebs have a place with their name on it or own a piece of Planet Hollywood or The Hard Rock Cafe. I heard it over and over again from our customers when we ran The Rock Inn. Everyone has an idea and a few recipes.

What makes Fred different from Jesse and Frank and the rest of us common dreamers is that he is more like the rich and famous. While he may not be the latter yet, he is the former and that is the most important thing to bring to this game. I can safely say that the main reason I can safely say that the Roadhouse will succeed is because Fred can afford to be successful.

He can afford to do things right as he completley remodels the premises, transforming it into his vision just the way he sees it. Then he can afford to redo or adjust anything that can be improved upon after the place has been running for awhile. Just as importantly, he can afford to let his place run with little or no profit for as long as it takes to get established and running smoothly in the black.

But there probably will be a profit from the get go and it probably won’t be little because on top of the advantages wealth provides, Fred also brings a lot of ingenuitey and creative energy to the table. I was thoroughly impressed with the job he did at The Ref and I have been able to watch him work as he puts together this new place. The guy has good ideas and the energy and resources to make them reality.

I look forward to Fred’s final product, just as I look forward to Frank’s and was looking forward to Jesse’s. I admire their guts and creativity. I find watching their efforts to be a fun pastime and that is why I blog about new places opening up. They are always intriguing and hopeful stories and the supply of new beginnings is unending.

This is a Youtube video I posted made from the 3-d modelling I did for Fred at the earlir stages of the remodelling of the Roadhouse

I have been asked a thousand times if I enjoyed owning a bar and I always answer something to the effect that it was the ultimate love/hate relationship. When I use those two opposing words I am meaning them in their strongest forms. For example, I hated passionately having to work 84 hours a week.
During the week I arrived at 9:30 to do the janitorial, count the money and make up the tills for the day. Next I opened the kitchen for lunch and then worked as one of the cooks for that meal. Then I was off to Costco or URM or Cash & Carry to do my own shopping.(It took a lot of time but I saved 10% by not having a company like Sysco deliver). Beyond restaurant food and supplies, I also picked up the alcohol and pull tabs.
After shopping, it was about time for dinner during which I worked in the kitchen. On slow days I would zip home for maybe an hour just to remind the kids that they still had a father figuratively speaking. Five nights of the week I was back by 8 to get ready to run the karaoke until 1 or 2 in the morning. On Friday and Saturday we were normally packed with a cover band and I was the babysitter doing everything from bar-backing to bouncing.
It was not that I hated the work. I found it light duty and fairly engaging. In fact, if I did not have four young kids at home, I would still be there. It was the time that it took that I hated. It was just wrong not being there for my family, especially when Elaine had to work 54 hours a week at the place. I hated it so badly that when it came time to renew the lease and pay $1,000 more a month, I refused the increase. The landlord eventually gave me an ultimatum and so after four years we walked away. I really hated that part.
But from our opening night Halloween party that was over the top to the Potluck dinner that touched our hearts so deeply on our last day, we had dozens and dozens of the best party nights and days with literally thousands of people. That part I loved and it gave each long hour a purpose.
The Rock Inn was a big place with room for every kind of gathering. While the Gideon’s ate and prayed together in our banquet room, revellers would be drinking and dancing as they celebrated a 21st or 40th or 50th or 60th birthday. Actually, while those milestones attracted the big parties, it seemed there was always someone getting too many rounds bought for them as they celebrated one of the more mundane birthdays that fell in between the decades.
We had a front row seat to every occasion people deemed worthy of a banquet, party or just a toast. Anniversaries, Christmas parties, Super Bowls, bowling banquets, reunions… you name it.
Among the many wakes we saw pass by was one for a guy that I clearly remember meeting for the first time in 6th grade as we waited in line to go inside after recess on my first day at the new school. He grabbed my arm and flipped me over his shoulder and as I looked up bewildered from the ground, he said “Hi my name is Steve Chamberlain.” And I said “Dan Daley back at South Pines warned me about you and now I know why”. We remained friends from then through us opening the Rock Inn when he came in one night and playfully but obnoxiously grabbed me by the hair from across the bar as I barbacked one busy night. He was being a drunk customer, trying to reestablish the pecking order between us. I did not mind because I knew he was proud of me and he knew that he and I went back to the days when he ruled University Elementary.
I saw the retirement parties for cement truck drivers whose first days on the job I could remember, having been only eleven years old when Dad started me on his foundation crew. One guy named Jay Carpenter actually worked on Dad’s crew for a few years before he went to work as a cement truck driver. I had to ask him to put out his cigar at his retirement party since the no smoking law had just gone into effect. He really did not like the idea that I could boss him around.
These kinds of times were rich, like Bill Gates rich, like Mega lottery winner rich, and I loved them. But of all the hundreds of great gatherings, one stands out as by far the best to have been a part of for Elaine and I. It was a benefit for a little girl named Hailey who had been terribly abused by her daycare worker.
Compared to that day when they were able to raise $10,000 for her, nothing made us feel so grateful to be owners of a place as then. I would argue there is no greater purpose for a bar than to host a benefit for anyone in crises, let alone a young child in need. For that matter, I would go one step further and argue that no structure be it a church or school gymnasium or opera house has any loftier use of its space than to bring caring people together to raise money for the purpose of helping lessen the financial burden of a family enduring the immeasurable trial of carrying and comforting a child through suffering.
This Saturday the Bayou Tavern out at Trent and Barker has the God-given opportunity to rise far, far above its calling as it takes on the honorable role of hosting a fundraiser for one of God’s precious young children named Jayden Bennett, who at age 10 has been waging his fight against cancer for 3 years.
Just as the Bayou will be at its highest and best calling this Saturday, so will each and every person who attends. I can say that knowingly, having attended the most important night of many peoples’ lives. Nothing compares to doing what little you can to just slightly relieve the unfathomable burden of a family with a child going through what Jayden Bennett is going through.

I could write all day long and never begin to say the words that this picture says so poignantly and profoundly. I can only add that this function begins at 4. Lasagna dinner is $10. There will be a live and silent auction. The Bayou is at the corner of Trent and Barker. There will be entertainment and if you can come up with a better place to be, don't ever tell me because we'll just get into a big argument.

(The Luxury Box bon voyage party will be Friday the 24th. They open at 3 and will go, as Tina says “Until whenever.” She hopes people will come in and say goodbye.)

On April 25, 2010 I posted my first blog. It was on the opening of The Luxury Box in the Spokane Valley where Percy’s Americana Cafe had been and The Golden Hour before that. Now my 70th blog, coming approximately two years later, is on their closing at the end of February. It is not what I hoped for Tina Bishop and her family. They put their hearts into it and I would say that Tina put in more hours than most owners, by quite a bit.

She sat down with me last night at her restaurant and told me that they had decided on Sunday to pack it up. She said that while her banquet facility had done well, the restaurant and bar were never money makers. She also said that they were hoping to keep the banquet part of the business going if they can work out a deal with the landlord.

Before they opened, I barely knew Tina but I became a friend and supporter as well an admirer of her work ethic within the first few months. Because of that, I feel bad that it did not work out as she had hoped. I know from personal experience that it is very painful to walk away from something that you have invested so much emotion and effort and time and money into. But I can also attest to there being an afterlife, which Tina will flourish at as she continues with the event planning career she has done well at for years. I am not worried about her future, just a bit sorry for what she has passed through.

For me yesterday afternoon was the definition of bittersweet. Before I happened to go into The Luxury Box to meet a couple of friends for a drink, I had spent an hour or so interviewing Fred Lopez who is getting ready to open his new place, The Ref, at the end of the month. Fred is going to make a very good feature  for my newsletter because he has a great story and his new place and the ideas that he has for it are pretty exciting.

The only reason that I got to know Fred recently was because of the last blog that I wrote in which I announced the closing of Holly Rock and talked about the great risks of getting into the business. I was a bit pessimistic perhaps in my references in the blog to The Ref’s imminent opening and Fred took exception to it in a comment.

He also invited me to come in and meet him and see what he was planning. I did on Monday and was impressed by him and his ideas and what he is about to unfold for our pleasure and his profit. We set up a meeting for my interview the next day.

Both Tina and Fred know that I would have all but begged them not to have entered the game. It looks fun but the waters can be treacherous. Back when we owned The Rock Inn, I remember being amazed by what a commonly held dream it was to own a place.  People were constantly coming up to me and telling me about their dream of opening a bar or sandwich shop or bistro.

I think a lot of people are creative and enjoy hosting parties and entertaining guests and so the hospitality industry looks like a lot of fun. And it can be a lot of fun, but it can also be deadly . It always reminded me of a story Elaine’s brother told me that he lived through when he was a young man of about 19 in the Coast Guard based on the Puget Sound.

He said that one day he and two friends decided to go swimming in the ocean. They each had an inner tube and they soon drifted a hundred or so yards from shore. Everything was going fine until they got caught in a riptide. The riptide carried them around its large oval path and even though they tried as hard as they could,  they could not get out of it.

They knew that they were in serious trouble and were scared for their lives. To their horror they saw a fourth friend swimming out to join them. He said they waved their hands and yelled at him to go back but he did not understand, it looked like they were having fun. They were out at the far side of the riptide’s deadly circle as they saw their friend get snatched up by it.

It took a long time but they finally got connected up with the fourth guy and they all struggled in the tide together. Hours passed, the four of them grew exhausted as they struggled to get out. A crowd formed on the beach and the Coast Guard brought out a boat. The riptide’s path shifted and they would pass so close in shore that people were actually reaching out and trying to grab them as they went by. The boys would try to stand up in the shallow water but the current was so powerful that it knocked them off their feet.

The coast guard boat was able to attempt rescuing them just one at a time as they passed on the ocean side of the riptide’s path, but even that was very dangerous as they were only able to shoot out a rope to them and by then the swimmers had prescious little strength remaining. Elaine’s brother was the last one in the tide’s grip and he told me that as he went around close to shore he no longer had any thing left and he let go. As he gave up and sank into the shallow water, someone was able to reach out and grab his arm just before he let go of his breath. Two of his friends made it to the Coast Guard boat but the one kid that they tried to warn off did not and he drowned.

While that is a dramatic and tragic story, it was the one I thought of as I was struggling so hard at the beginning of our time at the Rock Inn and I would see other people opening up places in the Valley. In the four years we were at there, The Edge, just down the road went through four owners, Panama Jack’s went through four and Medley’s went through two. And those were just the places on Sprague that opened after we opened our place.

But that is not to say The Ref will ever go under. I hope Fred does well and I believe that he has a much better chance than most given that he has other succesful businesses and owns the building. But I will keep warning others that, while The Ref may be doing very well and Fred may be having fun, most of the seeminly great opportunies in the hospitality industry are  really waters churning with deadly hidden currents.

The Ref will open Tuesday March 6th.

To read the feature story I wrote on Fred after I wrote this blog, click here.

Last October I blogged on the eminent opening of 2 new bars, Holly Rock and The Ref,  in the Spokane Valley. The Holly Rock opened late that month but not so The Ref. In other words, the people at The Ref are still having fun spending thousands of dollars creating their vision of the next version of a sports bar the world has been waiting for , while the people at Holly Rock are losing thousands of dollars as their eyes well up with tears, blurring out of focus whatever remained of the vision that inspired them to get into the hospitality trade.

While my voice may sound cynical, it is a viewpoint that cost me a lot of money and tears to acquire. So well I remember 9 and half years ago as we excitedly worked at getting ready to open the Rock Inn. It was exhilarating to meet lots of new people from salesmen to band members to soon-to-be-customers. I painted the building, resurfaced the parking  lot, bought a new sound system, and spent thousands on buying the existing business. We couldn’t wait to take over and start counting all the money.

We finally got our liquor license on Halloween night and it was over the top. The next two years, in fact, were over the top with great crowds packing out the dance floor every Friday and Saturday night. But all the money we were counting went into everyone’s hands but ours. It took us a full two years to begin to make a profit and that was only because we were willing to work harder than I’ve ever seen any other owners work.

I fervently hope that the Ref owners make money from the get-go. But I am afraid it will be rough going because beyond my own experience, I have watched very closely every place that has opened in the  Spokane Valley for the past 10 years and have spoken to most of the owners and become acquaintances with many and friends with more than a few. The story is always the same just about every time.

I guess to prove my point , fate delivered me a sad example between the few days since I began writing this blog and now as I sit down to complete it. Just last night as I sat among the revellers at Iron Horse’s 15th anniversary celebration I learned that Holly Rock closed last Friday. A friend told me he had just talked to Scott Lane (the landlord and owner of Hotties) who told him he just got it back from them. That means they lasted about 90 days. I rest my case.

That does not mean The Ref will not last a long time. There is a good chance we will all be celebrating their 15th anniversary 15 years from now. Another person that I visited with last night was Mike Robb, who runs the Iron Horse with his wife Patty. He had told me before that it was very rough there at the beginning and that it took them two years as well to get established and begin making a profit.

From all that I have heard of the Ref’s owners, they have the most important ingredient to making it in the hospitality industry: deep pockets, lots of dinero, capital with a captital C. From what I’ve seen they are spending lots of it transforming their 8,000 square foot space , which they own ( another hugely key ingredient), into a place the Valley can go to spend money and enjoy themselves. And though had they asked my advice I would have said don’t do, I still hope they beat the odds and create a great success that keeps building and building. I know I will be a fan of The Ref.

The Ref Update:  The Ref will be open Tuesday, March 6th. You can read a full article I wrote on Fred for our newsletter by following this link.
Also you can like their page on Facebook or join their group.

While I think getting into the business is a bad idea, I think they have some good ideas. This oval bar is one of them.

This cement bar top is another great idea. Easy to maintain and it'll last forever. Here's to hoping the same for The Ref .

Holly Rock Update

I would have let this blog rest but somebody from the Holly Rock contingent sent me a comment about half an hour after I posted . They said:

“please check your information before blogging, Hollyrock was doing amazing, until Mr. Lanes decided to violate the lease agreement and contract and forcefully remove us from the building. Hollyrock is in no way dead we are just in the process of relocating”

In my reply I told them I had gone to talk to Scott before I wrote the blog but he wasn’t around but the bartender gave me an earful. I really did not care to hear the whole story, I’ve heard it all before. The characters are different, the stage and the props are different but it is still the same old story:

New blood comes into a place with big dreams and some cash, they are so excited getting ready to open. They open and the first night is a blast. Then the reality of what they just got themselves into starts to slowly creep in as they see things like how ugly and sad people are when they get drunk, and how depressing an empty bar is on a Sunday or Monday night . Things really start to get bad after a few months of taking in some times thousands less than it takes to run the place. That is when the new owners start looking for ways of getting out. If they are lucky they find one and it is nearly always the landlord fault.

I saw that same exact movie four times after we left the Rock Inn. Some of the details were different, but the beginning and middle and ending were remarkably similar and Jack Riley, the landlord was always the badguy.

So after getting this comment, I went to down to talk to Holly Rock’s bad guy, Scott Lane. The jist of what he said was that the owners of Holly Rock told him on around the first of February that they would be vacating the premises after they held a big party after Mardi Gras. That made Scott mad and so he told them that he would be taking back his liquer license that they had been operating under since they opened.

Some of it doesn’t quite add up but over all it sounds about right. Holly Rock could have fought it hard if they wanted to and why did they never bother to get their license. Scott could have worked with them and made a smoother transition for himself instead of getting the place back in his lap overnight. But I really don’t care about all the details. Whether the people at Holly Rock want to believe it or not, I still say it was the same old story and they were lucky that it was a short story. And if they are serious about a part two, they can march right back down to our old place where they were originally going to open at Sprague and Vista. That old building is like a haunted theater that keeps replaying the same old scary movie.

Landlord gets the business back in the middle of the night, his building has been improved while he was away... I am just sure I've seen this picture before.

Lastly, go back up and check out the comments where Fred Lopez, owner of The Ref ,blasts the Scoop and the Scoop sends  back a savory salvo.

(The Hollyrock closed after about 90 days and the Ref will open March 6th)  recent blogpost

For every Hot Rod Cafe or Cyrus O’Leary’s that shutters its windows after years of glory only to be brought to their knees by the ravages of our reeling recession, there will always be a new place opening with novice owners confident they will not only attain their own glory but ride it to perpetual prosperity. These new owners are always sure they have an idea that the Spokane Valley has been awaiting since the first settlers rode horseback to the Plante’s Ferry trading post for a swig of whiskey and a venison steak.

Right on cue, two newcomers are busy preparing their places of business for Fall openings. I am sure their heads are filled with visions of dancing sugar plums as they spend money hand over fist shaping their dreams into reality. Though I root for them and all new owners , I always fear it may turn out like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby when she gave birth to a nightmare from hell after expecting a beautiful creation from heaven. As a follower of new openings in the Spokane Valley for several years, I can say that I have seen far more horror stories than fairy tales. But I have got to admit that both new places do have ideas that I don’t believe the Spokane Valley has ever quite seen.

One is only subtly different from the overpopulated Spokane Valley bar scene.  It is going to be a sports bar which we have a lot of in several watered down versions. Sullivan Scoreboard, Bolo’s, Monkey Bar and many others have their walls plastered with plasmas playing all play offs possible, but none of them are what I would consider solely dedicated to being just a sports bar nor are they overly worried about attracting the white-collar and professional fans. This is where the Ref, located in Owens Auction former building at 14208 East Sprague, is preparing to make its mark.

My intel on this new place comes mostly from hearing bits and pieces through the rumor mill for several months and so if it does not open quite like my description, don’t blame me. What I have gathered is that it will be along the lines of Heroes and Legends, slightly up scale with a heavy emphasis on all things sports. The rumors seem likely given the name on the liquor application. Fred and Melanie Lopez, who own the building, applied for their license in early September  which they should have long before they get done with what has to be a rather extensive remodel project. But a recent peek in the windows confirmed they are moving along.

The second new place is not a subtle version of anything existing in the Valley or that has ever existed as far as I know. The new owners here certainly have something original to offer and while the clientelle they intend to pursue has been around since the days when Plants Ferry trading post had an operating ferry, I don’t know if many of them would ever have gone on a public outing to be amongst other like-minded revellers. Perhaps the Spokane Valley is ready for an “alternate life style” bar, perhaps not.

My intel on this place, named Holly Rock, is firsthand, having talked to Robin Tuttle personally during a quick visit on the night they took over the building, which coincidently was where Elaine and I were once ourselves excited, expectant new owners waiting for our  opening 9 years ago to the month. The deja vu I felt on the recent visit did not really date back to then but rather the four previous times I have witnessed this scene since our run ended 5 years ago.

First there was Ripley’s which went RIP after 6 months, then Club Max, 9 months; then Club Edge, one year; then The Fubar, 6 months. The long list of casualties that came in the 20 years between when the original owner, Rose Townsend died and passed the landlordship over to her nephew, Jack Riley, in 1988 and when we opened the Rock Inn is lost to history since the only one who might have kept track was Jack.

Jack, like Rose and Ripley’s and the rest, is no longer with us and there is speculation that this recent development might make a difference in whether or not the new owners will make it. I have always thought that Jack was more of a scapegoat used by disappointed owners and their clients looking for someone to blame. But now we’ll have a chance to find out as  Spokane Valley’s first “alternative lifestyle” nightclub opens at the end of this month.

While I wish the crushing disappointment and financial hardship of opening and abruptly closing a place on niether friend or foe, I know for a certainty that it is the most likely outcome. I  hope fervently for success, however, for both the Ref and Holly Rock and I intend to show them my support and check them out as soon as they open. Though I will probably slip in the back door to our old place and make sure Elaine goes with me.

THIS JUST IN: Since posting the above story there seems to have been an unusual development. For some reason Robin Tuttle seems to be rethinkling going into the old Plantation building. Scott Lane who owns Hotteez on Raymond just north of Sprague has been looking for someone to buy his business for years and then lease them the building so that he can retire. He has been talking to Tuttle and he has been telling people that they have reached an agreement.

I hope it is a good one that Tuttle can do well with. I find it very odd that Tuttle would apply for his license at The Plantation and then get the keys to the building, only to get second thoughts. Normally Jack would have things tied up too tight for a prospective tennant to be able to wiggle away. It was probably a good decision based at least on the condition and layout of the buildings. For being just a nightclub, Hotteez is a much bigger and open building and has been kept up better through the years and has parking and great location.

If I could advise her now that I know that she is not tied to a long term lease anywhere, I would advise her to run as fast she can from this whole idea of owning a nightclub. It is the riskiest of business ventures with the chance of failure hovering right around 98%. If she does not turn away she will almost surely wish she had if not by the end of her first month then by the end of her second. Nearly everyone that I have known that tried the night club game never made one dime and lost in the neighborhood of $200,000. It is one of those things that look like a lot of fun, but that’s because most owners want you to think that they are doing fantastic.

At any rate, the second thing I would advise is that if she has to do this then  get a one-year lease with a series of 3-year leases after that. Don’t buy into thinking you’ll get a better deal with a long term lease. Robin is holding all the cards and can and should drive the deal that gives her the least risk. Scott and Jack have been looking for nightclub wanna be owners for years and they know they are very hard to find. A one year lease let’s the new owner hedge their bet a little just in case things don’t turn out like they hoped.

Holly Rock Update 11/20

Robin and gang recently took over the premises and what little business remained at the old Hotteez building. In a move that I admired and appreciated, they shut down the operation for 2 days in order to deep clean the place as I am positve had not been done since perhaps the Sea Galley left there back in the mid 80’s.

We stopped in shortly after they opened on the way home from the WSU/Arizona game down in Pullman. Not being nightowls, we took advantage of being out late to check out what the Valley’s first gay bar might look like in the hours past our bed time.

It was mostly as I would have expected a gay bar in the Valley that had recently opened, but there were a few surprises. It was fairly slow and the crowd was not crowding out the place but they were getting into the scene more than I was prepared for. By that I mean that while it was not a scene out of the movie Cruising, there was plenty of hot dancing and at least one same-sex couple making out in plain and unavoidable view. To further set the alternative lifestyle mood, a few queens with demeaners of  drama strolled ans strutted about the place.

I had no problem with all of this since I was in a gay bar, live and let live. I am not a critic of gays or their hangouts, but I did not like being frisked on my way in. I was more surprised by this than anything and I let them know it and Elaine actually refused to allow them to touch her when they attempted to pat her down after she returned from the bathroom and wanted to join me . They refused to let her even enter the bar, where I was waiting with a round, and tell me she was leaving.

Elaine called me as she walked across the parking lot to the Monkey Bar and I joined her as soon as I finished my drink. Ironically, the bouncer who frisked her came over too and I had the opportunity to ask him why they thought they had to frisk their patrons and then tell him why I thought it was a terrible idea.

He told me that since Hollyrock was the first gay bar in the Valley and since they had recieved a few threats, they were doing it to protect their clientelle. I told him that was bs and stupid. If somebody wants to blow away someone at a bar they are going to do it just like crazies do when they walk into a McDonald’s in California or Air Force bases in Texas.

On the one hand, I don’t like it on a personal level because I don”t want to go anywhere besides the airport or courthouse that I have to go through security for weapons.

To read a more recent blog on Hollyrock and The Ref click here.

I often wonder how places can keep their doors open when it is obvious they are not making a profit. Scotty’s, which closed a few weeks ago on Argonne appeared to be doing better than some that continue to defy gravity. Many years ago I stopped trying to figure Scotty’s out. To me it did not seem to be a big enough place to turn enough tables to make it a profitable venture. Since it seemed to stay fairly consistent through the years, I just figured the owner had other sources of income and the business was at least paying it’s own way.
Given that the doors were finally closed with the owner reportedly in debt, chances are that the place never did make a profit in all the years (around 8, I think) it was open. It would surely shock anyone who has never owned a small business how many small businesses operate without the benefit of a profit. In the restaurant/bar industry it is probably realistic to say that more small independents are not making a profit than are.
But that seems to be impossible for people to grasp. I have watched over and over again as someone threw their lifesavings at a venture with odds far greater for failure than success. I talked to the guy who came into the Plantation right after we had been kicked out. I assured him that he needed to have enough money put aside to get through a year or two of no profit. He looked at me like I was crazy and said he planned on making money from the day he opened. He was obviously mistaken because he only lasted 6 months.
We were still at the Rock Inn when Scotty’s opened and I remember wondering why would they spend $250,000 to remodel the old Wolfy’s so that they could give the Valley another watering hole and themselves a money pit. I guess they were just dying to play the game. I have a very strong feeling their initial investment was never recouped.

Now I see where someone is going to open an Oriental buffet at the old Mojo location behind Shari’s on Sullivan. I also heard the owners of the fitness center behind Owens Auction are planning to put in a sports bar in the strip mall between them and the auction’s space. That one so far is hearsay but the Oriental place is taking place for sure. The sports bar will likely come to fruition because it seems like such a fun business to be in.
They should talk to a friend of mine who bought into the industry at a well known Valley location not long ago. There he is tied to a long term lease with thousands of his savings sunk into a building he doesn’t own. “What was I thinking?” he said. “I would love to have my life back like it was before we got into this.” He can get out of the lease by filing bankruptcy or gut it out for another 8 years or so like Scotty’s did. Either way, his money and life as he knew it are long gone.

1)You’ve Got to Motivate Them to Move
You are the new place. No one beyond a scarce few of your friends feels any loyalty to you and even they will not stick around past the first few weeks if you don’t give them good service, quality product and reasonable prices.
   There are only so many patrons out there and they  already have their favorite places and the new place is not one of them.
You’ve got to offer something  everyone else is not. Then once you’ve lured them in with a great special or novelty item, you’ve got to make them want to come back. Beyond that  it is imperative you make such an impression on them that feel compelled to invite their friends back with them or spread the good word.
2)The Good News is that some People are Open
There are some customers out there that have their name engraved in the barstool they sit at every night and they won’t even entertain the thought of trying out a new place. One day you’ll appreciate those kind of regulars when you get some of your own.
   But there are two other types the new place has the chance to entice. First there are the disenfranchised that don’t like any of the available watering holes for one reason or another and so are looking for a place to call their own. The problem with them is that the reason they don’t like any place is because they are hard to please which makes them hard customers for the new place as well.
   Then there are the open-minded people that are willing and waiting to find a good new place to add to there choices of places to go. The problem with these is that they have half a dozen favorites and like to support them all. But they are your target and the idea is to become one of their most favorites.
3)The Bad News is People are Fickle
It is unbelievably easy to lose a customer for life. The problem is they have too many choices and can so easily go down the road to a place they haven’t had a negative experience.
   Be it a bad meal, a server with an attitude or even another customer who was rude to them. We lost one customer forever because another customer switched channels on the t.v. from a game he was watching. He never said a word, we weren’t even there, he just never came back.
4)Like it or Not, the Owner is all the Difference
    Everything in an establishment is a reflection of the owner and they cannot pass anything off on their managers or staff because
they hired them and these employees represent them in the eyes of their customers. And that is why the owner cannot be too attentive to every detail and aspect of their place. For example, if a server is rude to a customer, the customer wonders why the owner has rude people working for them. Or if drink prices seem high, the customer figures the owner is greedy. If a meal is served cold the customer sees the owner as having low standards. Everything falls on the shoulders of the owners.
5)Free Drinks and Stiff Drinks Go A Long Ways
    It is impossible for any owner, let alone the new owner not to
make mistakes but luckily there is a subtle way to smooth things out. Drinkers love to have a drink bought for them, it is like a big hug. Forget advertising, buying people drinks every once in a while is the best way to spend your marketing dollar.
   By the same token, the next best way to endear your way into a drinker’s heart is to give them value each time you pour them a drink. They will notice that they received an extra count and it costs the owner pennies. Give them a great deal and you may just get the numbers it takes to sustain a business.
6)The Owner must be Gregarious and Appreciative
People who frequent drinking establishments love the attention of the owner. In their minds, that who is who they are supporting
and they like to get some credit. It doesn’t take much. Just a quick “hello” and “how’s it going” will do.
   It is also extremely important that the owner thanks the customer for coming in as they go out. This let’s the customer know that the owner realizes that they had a lot of choices about where to spend their time and money and the owner appreciates the fact the customer chose their place.
7)Everything is Atmosphere and Atmosphere is Everything
The staff, the music,the lighting, the temperature,the crowd…
everything in the building when a patron walks in is atmosphere.
Often people don’t know what it is that turned them off or on to a place and that subtle subconscious swaying factor was almost assuredly atmosphere.
   People will be drawn to a place that is always warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They like to be greeted by attractive pleasant servers that remember what they drink. They feel uncomfortable under bright lights and in rooms with no music.
    Making people comfortable is key to a watering hole and something the owner must hold paramount and train their staff to do the same.
8)The Competition-Study, Spy and Soak In
If a place is successful and established, they have plenty to teach the newcomers. They have to be doing things right to have survived. I’ve seen so many new owners never venture out beyond their own place – huge mistake. Sam Walton built Wal-Mart initially by spying on and learning from the people who were successful at doing what he wanted to do.
   The bar business is extremely competitive and difficult and the new owner can not afford to miss a trick. They need to take all the best ideas they see and not be too proud to implement them in their own place. Don’t reinvent the wheel, learn by your competitor’s successes.
   Another reason to go into other places is because that is where your potential customers are at. Be sociable, buy them a drink and invite them to your place.
9) Quickly Abandon Your Cherished Great Ideas and Adapt
Every new owner has a few great,new and fresh ideas and more than a few stupid ideas. Lose the ego and admit when you are wrong.
   Most novices think they have the next great concept the market has just been waiting for. And then in a month or so the dream hits reality. Survival is all about adaptation to reality.
   Keep what you are able to from you original idea, but give the people what they want. You can only learn that from number 8.
10)Constantly Work on the Help
Here’s a simple rule no new owner wants to believe: new places don’t open with a great crew. It’s simple, all the best people have secure jobs in established places where they make great tips and they aren’t going to give that up on the chance that the new place might be better. So the new place gets the left-overs.
   The key is for the new owner to understand the reality of the situation and not sit back and let the staff run the place. It takes at least two years to slowly acquire a topnotch, trustworthy crew and until then the owner has got to be in control and make constant changes, firing the shifty and slovenly and immediately hiring the local star servers that occasionally become available.
   Along this line, always remember that customers are drawn to great servers and repelled by bad ones. To the owner, they are all the same price, and so hiring attractive, pleasant and hard working staff is  simply a matter of good business.
11) Work Your Butt Off
The truth is that so many have the dream of owning their own establishment, but almost none realize the price. If new owners truly knew how much effort is required to make a place succeed,they never would have signed up in the first place.
   As I mentioned before, the key to success is the owner and the more time spent, the more likely to succeed. The commitment
to open a place ties up thousands of dollars. Often it involves one’s entire life savings. It did for us. And so any new owner with a brain will put in the effort to protect and grow that financial investment.
   For two years we saw our hard-earned nest egg going out faster than we could imagine even though we worked as hard as we thought we could. Finally, with our backs to the wall, we worked harder than we ever imagined we could. My wife took over the bar and I took over kitchen and we began to make money. But it cost us all of our time.
   And that, combined with the above, is the only way I know how to ensure success.

(This something I wrote a few years ago to set the record straight. It has been buried with no link on my website ever since.)

Many times I have been presented with incorrect theories as to why we left the Rock Inn from people who seemed to not realize they were talking to the one and only authority on the subject. Perhaps, even my wife ,Elaine, does not  know exactly why I decided it was time to move on.. It was my call and this is why I made it.

The biggest misconception was that our landlord, Jack Riley, raised the rent so high that we could no longer afford to stay there. While it is true that he wanted $1,000 more a month than I wanted to pay, we could have afforded it.

We had an option in our original 3-year lease, to sign up at $5000 for another 3 years,and then $6,500 for the next three years after that. After seeing the realities of the business I determined that original agreement was more than I wanted to pay. So rather than signing up for the second 3 year term, I went month-to-month and tried to get Jack to renegotiate. After 8 months,  he finally said pay $5500 and sign a three year lease or get out in 10 days and that was his perogative. He could not understand why I would opt to leave rather than pay his price. The truth is I had a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with his price.

The biggest one was as simple as wanting to do better at the most important role in our lives. We have 4 kids who never saw us. When we got into the Rock our oldest was 13 and our baby was only 7. During the 4 years there, we did not have more than maybe 10 family dinners and not once were we home for a Friday or Saturday night. The only time I spent  with my children is when they worked down at the Rock. When deciding whether to sign another 3 year lease or not, that was the biggest factor … by far.

Another huge factor was the industry itself. I could see a big difference in the ring-outs on a weekend night from when we started to when we ended. In the beginning people simply drank more. As time wore on and the cops became more and more determined to

inforce the dui law, it truly affected our bottom line. That was a trend I did not see going away.

In connection with this there was the moral dilemma of being in a business that profited from putting our customers at risk. The more they drank the more money we made which put them at more risk of getting a dui which no one can afford. The regulars were our friends and we did not want to see them suffer and we did what we could to look after them, but often they were their own worst enemy and we were there to help them be just that. That was something we never got used to.

Another deciding factor was simply quality of life. While I did not mind working almost 80 hours a week to make the place succeed, I also realized that is the way workaholics are and that it was not healthy. Especially when the place you work is a bar and part of your job is having a good time with the customers.

Many people think that we simply failed in business and that no one could make it at that location. The Plantation locale at Sprague and Vista has seen a lot of failure in the past 20 years. One business neighbor believed the current occupant, Club Max, is number 16.

Ripley’s, which came right after us, was open about 6 months. Since Rose Townsend passed away in 1986, no one that  I  know of has made it as long as two years. We set the record at 3 years, 8 months and we left not because we failed, or that Jack raised the rent

too high. That location is tough because of the age and size of the building. But we proved it can go if you are willing to dedicate your life to it. But there in lies the rub: after nearly four years I was no longer willing to dedicate my life, my wife’s life and our family’s life to making the Rock Inn succeed.

We were well on our way to getting established and were making money when we closed, but I had come to the conclusion that the high price for success at that location was more than a father of four should pay. I look at it that Jack did me a favor by wanting more than I was willing to pay. It cost us a lot financially and emotionally to walk away but it was a decision I have never second guessed.

I heard a rumor a month ago that the guys opening our old place were going to call it Fu Bar. I thought no way, but people kept talking about it. Then Elaine went in and talked to them and saw the name on their liquor licence or menu or something. I still couldn’t believe it, I figured it must just be a temporary name or something but yesterday I saw they got their sign up and sure enough it’s the Fu Bar.

Fubar is an acronym that stands for F***ed Up Beyond All Repair. It comes from a 1944 Army short film called “The Three Brothers”. The main characters were Fubar and his brothers Snafu (situation normal all f***ed up) and Tarfu (things are really f***ed up).  Fubar is also a famous gay bar in San Francisco. I guess it works in San Fran and it probably won’t bother the bar crowd around here but don’t expect to see any of the general public going there with a name like that. It is beyond me why anyone would choose a name that will hurt business in any way. A name should be clever and catchy at best, or simple and passive at the worst. It should never have anything about it that would turn anyone off.

For example, our old place was for years called the Plantation and the landlord forced all the tenants to use the word Plantation in their name. He was so proud of that name that he actually put it in each lease agreement that the new owners must use the name so that it would remain registered and always be a part of that location. He only allowed us to call it The Rock Inn if we added “at the old Plantation” in small letters below our name. It was a big battle just to get that concession but I would have fought harder had I realized that some people found the word “plantation” offensive. I had a good African-American friend who would not go there because of the name. I know that if it offended him it must have offended a lot of people. That always bugged me.

Then you have Hotteez. Elaine hates the name and I’m sure a lot of women find it sexist. But I know the owner of the place and I am surprised that he does not call it Hoteez Plantation. That way he could offend about 75% of the people all at once just with his name. He might even have the African-American women picketing the place since they would be doubley offended.

A lot of people don’t give the name of a place any thought and it has no bearing on whether they go there or not and I am one of those people. To me personally, The Fu Bar is fine. It doesn’t bother me at all. But I know they are shooting themselves in the foot with that name. Just below the big neon Fu Bar they have another sign that says “Steak House.”  Well, I’m sorry but there are a lot of people who like steaks but don’t like bars.

When Elaine talked to them she told them how we used to have a lot of groups that held their meetings in our banquet room. They said they would really like to try to get them back. I doubt the Rotary Club will be real anxious to invite their guests and speakers to join them at a place called the Fu Bar. The new owners can also forget about the Gideon’s, who used to gather once a week and have prayer meetings in the banquet room at the front of the building while the sinners were raising hell at the bar in back. I always got a kick out of that.

I hope for the new owners’ sake that they run such a great place that the Fu Bar name will seem like pure irony, but based upon their first move, I am a little worried for them. So far all they have shown us is a Thifu – That Handle Is F***ed Up!

 There seems to be a preponderance of people planning to make a run at the nightclub game in the Valley. Our old place has a couple of guys getting ready to reopen the place, McQ’s has a retired couple wanting to invest their life savings , Bottoms Up is about to become the new Rock. I wish them all the best of luck but I would gladly send them all this email that I sent to a friend a few years back who was determined to get into the night club business with a parner. He did not take my words to heart and they lasted nine months. Here is my warning to them and anyone who thinks that running a nightclub is a bright idea:

My Dear Determined Friend,

 I want to put in written form my strong warning, so that I will have a record of just what I said. After this, I promise to leave you alone and simply support your efforts. It fascinates me how owning a bar is such a common dream and how it can sometimes cast a spell over a person. I speak from experience. The idea is appealing in so many ways, it’s a creative opportunity, it’s an opportunity for self-expression, it’s an opportunity to create an exciting new identity, to create a fun new place for people to come in and enjoy. There is the dream of making a lot of money and tons of new friends. And for you there is the added benefit to showcase your talents and really put your showmanship and people skills to work. There is always a chance your dreams will come true.

     However, it has been a sad thing to watch people like Ken Ripley, or J.R. and Betty at the Alpine and Shawn at Panama Jack’s, go for their dream and then pour their heart and soul and money into it, only to see it all turn into a big expensive, heart-breaking disappointment. In the time we were at the Rock Inn, Bobby D’s, now known as the Edge went through 4 owners. Don Gologoski opened two places, one he sold after a year (which failed) and the other he had to shut down after about 6 months. Don told me he has opened 18 bars and only made money at 2. These are just some of the people I knew.

    There were many places I watched fail that I did not know the owners. I can only think of about 3 places that have opened in the last 5 years that made it longer than 1 year. But each of the  20-plus failures I have watched had the belief they had what it took to succeed where so many failed. As Gologosky put it, they always think they are smarter than the last guy.

    The truth is you and your partner have been bitten bad and you are not using prudent  decision-making methods or wise negotiating techniques. There is no way you have gathered enough information to make any decisions and yet you are putting out money to tie up the building. Where is your business plan? Where are your recipes? What is the cost of insurance and can you actually get it? Have you looked at how much is required to get a liquor license ? If you can get it, how long will it take.  What this is, is a game you are dying to play.

     You are both only kidding yourselves if you believe you are making a smart career move. The main reason, I have concluded, that so many places fail is that anyone with the business skill to make a place run is too smart to get into the business in the first place.


     I could probably go on and on, but I think you get the idea. The biggest mistake I see is you rushing in. I would give you much better odds if you told the landlord to go ahead and try to lease it to the other party he says he has interested and if it is still available in a few months then you’ll talk. Then you have time to make a level-headed, well-thought out decision. The landlord might then be more flexible, and besides you are hurting your chances by opening up going into the summer.

     But you are going to do what ever you are going to do. Elaine and I would be available to consult on any area for a tab.  I don’t expect you guys to pay much attention to anything I have to say, people with the personality traits required to attempt such an endeavor such as this, tend to think they know best.

    One of the reasons we did as well as we did is because I paid for consultation and listened very carefully to anyone who had been in the business. One time a customer who had owned a place told me a secret to building a great happy hour and I followed his advice and could not believe how well it worked. Another customer told me a tip about sales tax that Elaine followed up on and got a $5,000 reimbursement.

     Also Elaine is without question the best bartender in town and she might be interested in being a working bar manager. I know an excellent cook that is taking a medical related break. He just set up Big Slick’s kitchen and he might be interested in getting you guys going.  I also have a $15,000 point of sale system that you could lease-to-own for about $300 a month or buy out right for $7,000. And we still have an ATM machine we could sell.

     I know you think I have something against the landlord and that is influencing my opinions. That is completely untrue. I am only telling you all this because you are my friend. I have nothing to gain by talking you out of this. I can easily see how we will benefit by having you go in. And when you do, we will be there for you in anyway you can use us, even if that is just being loyal customers.

                                        Good Luck, Craig

  That is the email I sent my friend, begging him not to jump in. They are friends of ours but they did not listen to a word I had to say. (They didn’t hire Elaine, and they bought a new point-of sale system for $25,000). I had friends trying to warn us about going into the Rock Inn and I did not listen either. We were kind of lucky in that we made it 4 years and left because we chose to. But we chose to leave because we finally figured out that we should never have gone into the nightclub game in the first place and I will lay odds that these well-meaning folks that are about to enter the game will eventually come to the same conclusion.