Playback: Strange Brew Empties
Financial duress buckles South Austin listening institution
Suspicions that Strange Brew was under financial duress were confirmed last Thursday morning when the coffee shop/concert venue's landlords padlocked the front door for non-payment of rent.
That afternoon, booker Kacy Crowley announced the venue would be open the next day. Eager to support the South Austin listening room that's gained a fierce local following since opening in 2012, fans flocked there Friday night to see visiting singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, but doors remained locked. According to on-scene reports, the talent arrived at 6pm, ascertained there wouldn't be a show, and eventually left.
The venue's Twitter announced the cancellation at 7:30pm – a half-hour before the show.
Frustrated customers who purchased day-of tickets online complained on Strange Brew's social media that they only received a partial refund, sans "facility fees." Forbert's management didn't respond to queries of whether he received payment for the concert. Subsequent performances over the next four days were moved to other venues.
The avalanche didn't come without warning. Customers had noticed a dearth of inventory in recent weeks and employees reported having paychecks bounce – though they were later compensated. Strange Brew founder Scott Ward blames a series of troubled investments over the past three years.
In 2014, he and his partners at South Austin Ventures acquired the neighboring Bakehouse building with plans to turn it into a 24-hour diner. The development stalled after 18 months of navigating the city's snail-paced Planning & Development Review Department processes to get building permits, meanwhile accruing $100,000 in rent, a tab that was supported by Strange Brew's income. In the same plaza, they bought the once-profitable Tobaccoville shop so they could knock down a wall and expand their concert space to allow tables and more seating. They moved the smoke shop into another building on the property, but Ward says it's become unprofitable.
He claims two other investments were ill-advised, but in 2015 he was so strapped with debt and behind on loan payments that he ceded the business to lender/partner Shane Widner, relegating his role to manager, booker, and non-voting partner. He says he opposed buying a catering company that operated out of Strange Brew's kitchen, a venture that folded after four months. A second Strange Brew location opened briefly last summer inside West Sixth drinkery Key Bar, and Ward terms its payroll deficit "the nail in the coffin."
"It all runs together," sighed Ward. "All Strange Brew's revenue was spent supporting other projects, then you don't have money to order all the beer or you run out of tea for weeks on end, and people stop coming."
Strange Brew waved the financial white flag in August, declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Their filing shows an overall debt of $464,933.27, with creditors including the IRS, Joe Ely, Mother Falcon, and landlords Republic Commercial Properties. Ward believes the total sum owed to landlords – i.e., what it would take to get their doors open – is roughly $61,000.
Will investors be willing to pump enough money into Strange Brew for it to reopen?
According to Ward, one of the business' roughly 20 investors stepped forward this fall and offered to bring in the capital needed to save the company on the condition that Widner step down as president, while maintaining his company share. Ward says he urged Widner to take that deal.
"I told Shane, 'We're screwed. If you don't do this, I'm out, because my reputation is at stake and there's nothing I can do to save this company.' He didn't and I quit," said Ward, who stepped down from daily operations in December.
"Since then, a group of our investors have made the same demand – that Shane step down and they come in and put up the approximately $200,000 that would right the ship for immediate needs," continued Ward on Monday.
Widner said he would comment, but did not.
Strange Brew's future uncertain, Ward remains proud of the community of musicians and fans that coalesced there.
"It was a place for people who don't necessarily want to spend time in bars," he offered of the Lounge Side venue, which hosted multiple shows, seven nights a week. "What the musicians found at Strange Brew that was different from a lot of other places was that they loved how much care was put into the sound. And I cared. I'd load their equipment, bring them beer, have a conversation with them, and I insisted that our employees treat the musicians with respect and dignity."
Evidence of that mutual respect, Strange Brew favorites Guy Forsyth, Shinyribs, Jeff Plankenhorn, and more raise money for Strange Brew's laid-off employees with a benefit show Sunday at Donn's Depot.
Lemon Lounge opened Friday with a performance by wonderfully woody parlor jazz combo Rent Party. The new venue at 908 E. Fifth, an annex to Brew & Brew, comes courtesy of former Flipnotics GM Lisa Kettyle, who envisions the venue as an intimate concert space that will, by spring, host performances four or five nights a week. "People are hungry for a listening room space with a large seating capacity where bands and fans can really connect," she said. Friday, the Lounge hosts NYC industrial metal contingent Psalm Zero, electro warlord Breakdancing Ronald Reagan, digital punk duo Street Sects, and dance goth soothsayers Knifight.
Exploded Drawing, the monthly gathering of Austin's experimental beatmaker scene, landed an incredible new venue with the Motion Media Arts Center on Tillery Street. The 7-year-old DIY event – staunchly all-ages, $5, BYOB – was typically held in warehouses, but "Playback" is happy to report indoor plumbing hasn't ruined the vibe one bit. Organizers Butcher Bear and Soundfounder bring in artists you won't often see in a club setting, like last Friday's performance by drum virtuoso Deantoni Parks, who set up on the floor, playing a keyboard with his right hand and drums with his left for a truly fascinating performance. www.exploded-drawing.com.
Miguel Angel, local DJ Ulovei, opened his apartment door Friday night to a masked attacker wielding a katana sword and dagger. The alleged assailant – identified as Shusaku Shiroyama, co-owner of the Moloko bar, where Angel has recently performed – wounded his victim in the hand, arm, and back before friend Kirkland Audain – homegrown rapper Cap n Kirk – showed up, got chased by Shiroyama, and alerted police. Shiroyama was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Angel was taken to Brackenridge hospital, which he left that night against doctor's advice and performed at Volstead as scheduled.
Dikes of Holland isn't billing next Wednesday's performance at Hotel Vegas as a (gulp) final show, but the garage-punk quintet's founding guitarist Chris Stephenson is moving Down Under with his Australian fiancée. One of Austin's most exciting live acts of the last decade sprang out of the ashes of Fire vs. Extinguisher in 2008 and net exposure the following year on Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy's local scene document Casual Victim Pile. Stephenson, Phillip Dunne, John Paul Bohon, and Trey Reimer added vocalist Liz Burrito (née Herrera – see this week's cover story, p.50), with 2010's self-titled barrage and melodic spazz punk party Braindead USA two years later ensuing. Burrito confirms the band has another album in the works and leaves the door open for touring opportunities. The next night finds the fiery frontwoman hosting a happy hour at Beerland starring her trio ¿Que Pasa?, Lil Homies (feat. Holy Wave's Kyle Hager), and a secret special guest act.