Last week, the employees of the Live Oak were called together for a meeting. The 25 or so staffers learned that the West Magnolia Avenue-area restaurant and music venue would effectively close at the end of April. To most of the cooks, servers, bartenders, and everyone else employed there, this was bad news, but it was also something of a surprise. Though the venue had struggled to stay afloat for its first few years, the past two had seen the venue’s fortunes take a positive turn. Why would a club that was finally turning a profit, finally filling its calendar with quality shows suddenly shut down and vacate the premises? Really, it boils down to rent.
The brainchild of general contractor Bill Smith, the Live Oak opened in June 2012 as a sort music venue for people who wanted to see live music before their bedtimes (i.e. long before the stroke of midnight), drink some craft beers, and maybe have a flatiron steak. From the menu to the beer selection to the shows, everything about Smith’s vision for the Live Oak was ambitious. Unfortunately, the delivery left a lot to be desired. While the space was beautiful, its layout and logistics were not conducive to succeeding at being a two-story biergarten mixed with a five-star restaurant and respectable concert hall. Attendance at shows dropped. Sales drooped. People griped on Yelp! To keep the place open, Smith sought out more investors. Staff turned over, and debts piled up. Rumors about it shutting its doors for good persisted like ghosts, yet it never totally went under.
Brooks Kendall Jr., the Live Oak’s talent buyer and an employee of Arlington-based Afallon Productions, explained in terms as legally permissible as he could why the Live Oak’s tumultuous run was suddenly preempted.
“The simple version of it is that [Smith] needed more money to keep the place open, and the current owners ended up with the majority of the shares,” he said. “They came to Afallon and said, ‘We have this business now, but we don’t know how to run it.’ ” He and restaurant-industry veterans Asher Karnes and Lee Allen were the ones tasked with figuring out what to do to get the club back in the black.
Smith’s ideas had been sound on paper but tough to execute in real life.
“We carried 200 beers,” Kendall said. “The food menu was expansive and not executable in that small kitchen, and we were out of the ingredients for half the stuff all the time. We were understaffed –– the rooftop bar was rarely open, so you’d have to come downstairs to get a beer. Basically, it was like starting from scratch. … I don’t mean that as an insult to anybody. But that’s how things were. I think it had gotten to be more than they could handle.”
Kendall’s first move was to fill the calendar. Then he and his management team went to streamlining. By paring down the offerings (such as its tap selection shrinking from 60 to 17) and increasing its shows, the Live Oak became easier to run, and it started making money.
“When we first came in here, there was a feeling that there was a ceiling of what sales you could do on the roof,” he said. “And within six months of that, we did twice what that ceiling was. … Finishing 2015 was a big thing, because our sales almost doubled from 2014.”
The business was on the up-and-up, but it also still owed a lot of money. Seeing that the venue could turn a profit, Afallon decided it was worth the time and money to file bankruptcy on the business originally begun by Smith. As a new business entity, the Live Oak had a fresh start. But it also meant that it violated the terms of its lease. Kendall wouldn’t go into details, but the Live Oak went to court with the landlord to fight the new terms. The judge’s ruling permitted the Live Oak to continue on with the original lease, but the building’s owner, Peter Lyden, was permitted to renegotiate the rate.
Lyden, through his attorney Tim Harvard, declined to comment for this story, and Kendall was unable to get into specifics. But he surmised that Lyden’s renegotiated offer was more than the business could sustain. At present, the venue operates on a temporary month-to-month lease that is a steep increase from the original deal. At the end of April, the rate climbs to exorbitant heights, Kendall said. The Live Oak’s last show, starring country singer-songwriters Brandy Clark and Charlie Worsham, is on Sat., April 29. But the weekend after that, Afallon will launch a new concept in Arlington called Lester’s, which Kendall describes as “basically a tiny shack bar with a big backyard” located on the same block in Downtown Arlington as Division Brewing. Afallon owns a few buildings nearby, and Kendall said they’re putting something in all of them –– including a relaunched Live Oak.
Slated to open in October, the new Live Oak will be bigger and better-equipped to serve an expanded menu and a robust beer selection. And since Afallon owns the building, the new Live Oak won’t fall victim to the cold logic of real estate. So there’s a happy ending.
Still … I’m gonna miss you, Live Oak. You offered jobs to the neighborhood, hosted some really cool shows, and provided a venue for high-culture nonprofits like The Cliburn or Fort Worth Opera to hold events and expose them to a wider audience. The loaded potato chips were pretty dope, too. Arlington will be lucky to have you.