Say so long to Strange Brew? What the popular South Austin music venue and coffee shop first described as a temporary closure last week increasingly appears to be permanent, with its doors still locked and a “for lease” sign now posted in the parking lot.
Employees and musicians were taken by surprise Thursday when landlord Republic Commercial Properties locked the doors of the business. An employee who initially reported that Strange Brew was “temporarily closed due to financial issues” then was told the venue would be open for weekend shows, including a Friday concert by touring performer Steve Forbert and a Saturday CD release event for local singer-songwriter Barbara Nesbitt.
But the doors never opened. Forbert fans who bought tickets to his show arrived to find the venue still closed, as did the artist himself. On its Facebook page, Strange Brew stated that those who bought advance tickets online would get a full refund. Nesbitt’s CD release, meanwhile, was relocated to a house concert venue; Forbert also played an area house concert on Sunday, a previously scheduled event. Nashville singer-songwriter Anthony da Costa’s Monday show was moved to the new east side venue Lemon Lounge.
A largely ambiguous post on Strange Brew’s Facebook page suggested a glimmer of hope: “Think Monty Python ‘I’m not dead yet!'” But some of the musicians with weekly residencies at the club are making other plans. Drummer Ernie Durawa announced he’s moving his Tuesday show to El Mercado Backstage next week. Wrenfro leader Tony Scalzo noted on Facebook that his band plans to move its Wednesday shows elsewhere, though a location hasn’t been announced yet.
Court records show that Strange Brew filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August. The filing lists more than $450,000 owed to a dozen federal, state, city and individual creditors, including $200,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. Unsecured claims ranging from $800 to $3,500 are listed for a handful of artists, including Austin acts Joe Ely and Mother Falcon.
Founder Scott Ward opened Strange Brew as a coffeehouse in 2010 and added live music to the space’s south room in 2012. Ward said he took out a loan early on to buy out an initial partner, and that the loan later was bought by Shane Widner, the current president of the company.
What Ward describes as “a friendly takeover” about two and a half years ago resulted in Widner and another partner taking control of the business. “I got behind on my payments to them,” Ward explained. “They made a friendly proposition of sorts that basically protected myself and a few other investors I had at that time, and brought them into the fold of the new business.”
In June 2014, Widner and Ward announced plans to turn the former Bakehouse restaurant, next door to Strange Brew, into a 24-hour cafe. That cafe has never opened, despite what Ward says were extensive efforts to update the building and comply with city codes. In the meantime, Ward says Strange Brew paid out “$90,000 in rent while waiting for the permit.”
That was just one of several side-business projects that went awry, Ward said. Strange Brew took over an adjoining tobacco shop with hopes of eventually expanding its music room into that space, but a few months ago “the landlord closed it because we couldn’t pay the rent,” Ward said.
An attempt to open a Strange Brew coffee location downtown as part of the Key Bar on West Sixth Street, as well as the purchase of a nearby school lunch catering business, also ended up costing more than they brought in, Ward said.
“The financial difficulties have been going on pretty heavily for the last 12 months, so it’s not a really new thing,” said Ward, who finally left his $4,000-a-month salaried job as the club’s manager in December.
“It certainly was not my wish for Strange Brew to fall on hard times,” says Ward, adding that he’d hoped the business not having to pay his salary might help its bottom line. But just last week, he says, he got calls about bounced checks from three artists, including Texas Tornados member Augie Meyers, who played the venue Dec. 26.
Ward says he had argued for creating a checking account for paying musicians that was separate from other business operations. “Had that account been isolated from the other operations, then at least the artists would not be not getting paid and dealing with bounced checks,” he said.
Durawa, who played the Dec. 26 show with Meyers, had been a fixture at Strange Brew for four years, holding down a Tuesday residency with a different special guest every week. This Tuesday morning, he arrived at the venue not for a show, but to retrieve the drums he’d donated to the club many years ago. In return, Strange Brew had christened its stage as the “Ernie Durawa Stage” with a plaque.
Durawa said he wasn’t totally surprised by what happened. “I knew they were having trouble, especially when Scott left,” he said. “When he left, things just kind of started falling apart.”
Starting next Tuesday with a performance by his band Los Jazz Vatos, he’ll be playing at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at El Mercado Backstage, which built a new stage with a good sound system in its back room two years ago.
“It’s a good deal all the way around, but it makes me sad still,” he said, explaining that he’ll miss Strange Brew. “It was such a nice room. It was so nice to play for people who would just listen.”
Widner did not respond to requests for comments on Tuesday, nor did representatives from Republic Commercial Properties.
On Sunday, a handful of musicians, many of whom played Strange Brew regularly, will play a daytime event at Donn’s Depot on West Fifth Street to raise money for employees who are now out of work. The lineup from noon to 7 p.m. includes Shinyribs, Jeff Plankenhorn, Sam Baker, Guy Forsyth & Friends, Barbara Nesbitt, Jaimee Harris, the Flyin’ A’s and Danny Britt; a $10-$20 donation is suggested.