This October, amid a hell storm of building breakdowns and repairs, SOhO Restaurant & Music Club turned 20. It was a quiet, if almost nonexistent, celebration for the Victoria Court venue, which remains the only Santa Barbara establishment offering year-round live music seven days a week.
Like many business owners, SOhO proprietors Bob and Gail Hansen took a major hit when the economy crashed in 2008. A tightened budget made manager Gail assume all of the club’s booking obligations. It also put Bob back in the kitchen for the first time in 15 years.
But that’s not to say the Hansens are complaining.
Sitting down with the couple last week, while their son and bar manager Tyler tended to office work nearby, I immediately got the sense that the Hansens don’t let much get them down. For them, SOhO isn’t just a business, it’s a home away from home. And its walls―worn as they may be―hold two decades of family history between them.
The Hansens’ first encounter with SOhO was almost serendipitous. At the time, Bob was a VP for a large restaurant chain with offices on Miramonte Drive. Gail, a former waitress turned homemaker with four kids, was working part-time at the area middle school. And the club, which had recently moved in after the death of the Bluebird Café, needed help.
“The first night we were in the space, I turned to her and said, ‘God, Gail, wouldn’t it be nice to just have one restaurant in town?’” recalled Bob, laughing. “You’ve got to be careful what you wish for.”
The Hansens purchased SOhO Restaurant & Music Club in the fall of 1994 from Nancy Weiss and Don Ermini. “It took us nearly 5 months to figure out who had the rights to sell the place,” laughs Bob. “From the front of the house, everything looked great, but the business side was in dire need of reorganizing.” In the beginning, Gail waited tables and managed on some nights. Bob managed on others. Gail’s sister Kim was in charge of booking the music. Not long after, though, business started to surge, thanks in part to the couples’ eye for picking ― and holding onto ― their staff. “All four of our kids have worked here ― except for one, and he’s played here,” said Gail. “But everyone I hire has to be a music lover. And they all come in on their nights off.”
The Bigger Picture
Since the financial plummet, the Hansens have had to get inventive. In addition to remaining hands-on in every aspect of SOhO’s operations, they’ve started renting out their kitchen to a handful of Santa Barbara food start-ups, including The Juice Club, Sugar & Salt Creamery, Pascale’s Kitchen, and Mesa Salsa Company. In addition, the Hansens are running SOhO on the Road ― a mobile kitchen pop-up for community festivals. In 2015, Bob will also expand the idea to event catering under the name Bob Appétit.
But the couple’s fight to stay afloat isn’t just an economy thing. It’s an issue indicative of the music industry at large.
Santa Barbara’s downtown, a once-bustling hotbed for live music acts, has become something of a venue wasteland. Lower State Street’s seemingly endless stream of bars and nightclubs brings in a huge chunk of the city’s revenue, and paid bands are rarely a part of the entertainment costs. Meanwhile, the slow death of record sales has forced artists to rely mostly on touring to make ends meet, meaning that they go to the big cities where the crowds are guaranteed. Simultaneously, as Gail points out, the growing number of music festivals and increasingly stringent radius clauses (which keep artists from playing multiple venues within a certain mileage and time period) are making booking bigger touring acts more difficult by the day.
So why, amid a mounting string of industry upheaval and venue closures, has SOhO managed to keep on?
Part of it is the formula. Rather than stick to a niche, Gail and her staff are casting their net wide and bringing in an increasingly eclectic roster of talent. In the past few months alone, the venue has played host to young electronic acts like Panama and Beat Connection, guitar rockers like Thurston Moore and Dawes, reggae giants like Easy Star All-Stars and Pato Banton, and 805 favorites like Cornerstone, Area 51, Dishwalla, and Animal Liberation Orchestra.
Ask Bob, though, and the answer is even simpler: “I think it’s because we’re so hands-on,” he says, a nod to the club’s welcoming, homey feel. “And Gail is involved in every aspect of it: She talks to the agents, she makes the deals, she greets the bands, she sets up the hospitality. And then come 11 o’clock at night when the place is packed and everyone is going crazy, you look four rows deep in the crowd, and there she is on the dance floor.”
Ask the Hansens what’s in store for the future of SOhO, and they’ll give you an itinerary rooted in tenacious resolve. As they slowly recover from this fall’s barrage of setbacks — which included bursting pipes, refrigerator breakdowns, and flooring issues, just to name a few — Gail and Bob are setting their sights on some long-needed improvements, including upgrading the venue’s lighting, raising the stage, and expanding the green room, with the help of their staff and friends.
“We are a true mom-and-pop organization, and when it gets time to hunker down, you hunker down,” said Bob. “And our kids help us,” adds Gail. “We have had so many people help us.”
Though SOhO’s birthday has already come and gone, Bob promises the party planning has only just begun: “2015 is going to be a whole year of celebration,” he said, hinting at more than a few very big fundraising surprises.
“We’ve given the community 20 years of our blood, sweat, and tears,” says Bob. “And they’ve given us so much back. And that, combined with Gail’s love and her tenacity and her unwillingness to be defeated, is what keeps this place going.”