Throwing in the towel
Disheartened by lagging business and an insecure lease, Towne Lounge owner Woody Sjostrom puts the Towne Lounge up for sale
Woody Sjostrom bought the Towne Lounge in 2003 with hopes of restoring it back to the place he remembered it to be when he was in college—a blue-collar, “working man’s” bar, where everyone is welcome, drinks are cheap, and long hours (6 a.m. to 2 a.m.) make it the only downtown Chico spot where swing-shifters and 9-to-5ers alike can take a load off.
“It’s the only whiskey bar—or dive bar—left in Chico,” said Sjostrom while sitting near the large glass window in front of the joint at 327 Main St.
But today the Towne Lounge is for sale, and there’s a good chance it could be a hard sell, he said.
Sjostrom placed the bar on the market about four months ago, when he reached a breaking point after more than a year of declining business and several years of feeling insecure about his month-to-month lease. The building’s owner, Alan Tochterman, has repeatedly expressed his desire to see the bar relocate, but it doesn’t make financial sense for Sjostrom to move the entire business to another spot downtown.
The only way Sjostrom can make a decent profit and consider a new venture—he’s done with bars, he says—is to sell the bar as a package deal—name, liquor license, equipment and all—but Tochterman isn’t guaranteeing a lease to any new renters who plan to keep the business as-is, putting Sjostrom in a pickle.
“[Tochterman] said, ‘You have nothing to sell with no lease,’ ” said Sjostrom. “It’s a huge catch-22.”
Sjostrom set his original asking price at $375,000, but the highest offer he has received is a mere $150,000, he said. He’s listed the bar on Craigslist and recently dropped the asking price to $250,000.
“[Tochterman] just doesn’t want us here, and it’s easier to sell it and move onto something else,” said Sjostrom, who is friendly with Tochterman despite their differences, and vice versa. “I want to be out of here, too, but I am not just giving this thing away.”
The Towne Lounge was born on the 300 block of Main Street in 1966. Since then, it’s become notorious for its long hours and special liquor license, a “Type 48” license that allows patrons to buy alcohol to be consumed off premises and does not require the bar to serve food (commercial kitchens can cost $100,000, Sjostrom said). It also affords the business a few “grandfathered-in” rights, including being exempt from requirements such as closing early on certain holidays.
The Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control has capped the number of Type 48 licenses issued in Chico, making them a valuable asset to the seven or so bars that have them and can sell them, Sjostrom said.
Prior to the ‘90s, the Towne Lounge was a “very nice” place that served the after-work crowd in the evenings, Tochterman said, but the bar went downhill under the management of the original owner’s daughter, who was “not a good business person.”
Sjostrom bought the place and cleaned it up, including scrubbing the “red” ceiling (which turned out to be tar from cigarettes) and tearing out the stinky, booze-soaked carpet. He also stopped serving vagrants, who had made it a habit to come to the bar when they got some money.
Everything was OK until three years ago, when Tochterman’s parents retired and he took over, Sjostrom said. At the time, Sjostrom had just sunk $15,000 into indoor renovations, including knocking out a wall to make room for more pool tables.
Sjostrom had plans for other renovations inside, including making the bathroom handicapped-accessible and installing floor sinks and plumbing, he said, but Tochterman never gave him the go-ahead.
“I have talked to Woody about trying to clean it up, but his idea of cleaning it up and my idea of cleaning it up aren’t the same thing,” Tochterman said candidly by phone.
As the years ensued, the space next door (the now-defunct Underground), also owned by Tochterman, sat vacant.
The Towne Lounge took the flak for the “riff-raff” who hung out in the alcove in front of the vacant space, but in reality, Sjostrom said, Towne Lounge staff have a long history of policing transients and students who urinate, vomit and vandalize the building into the wee hours of the morning.
In Tochterman’s opinion, though, the bar is still part of the problem.
“Unfortunately, that particular bar attracts a certain type of clientele, and every time I had a potential tenant, they said they didn’t want to be next door to [the Towne Lounge],” Tochterman said.
For the past several months, the front of the vacant space next door has been blocked off during construction, temporarily eliminating the homeless hangout. Tochterman also has two tenants lined up. The back office will be used for office space while the front will house an environmentally friendly cleaning business, he said.
When it comes down to it, Tochterman—whose family owns several other primo buildings downtown—thinks the downtown bars are too clustered, especially on the stretch of Main Street where the Towne Lounge resides.
Not only does the bar density make it tough to rent to retailers, Tochterman said, but it also creates a nightlife-centered downtown that doesn’t draw customers to businesses throughout the day.
However, Tochterman is honest about the fact that his major opposition isn’t simply renting to a bar—it’s renting to a dive bar like the Towne Lounge.
“If [the bar] were clean, I would be OK with that,” Tochterman said. “But out of the six bars on the block, the [Towne Lounge] is the worst.”
Tochterman added that new renters—bar owners or not—will be offered Sjostrom’s low rent of $2,000 per month initially to compensate for Tochterman’s requirement that a new tenant make major indoor renovations at his approval.
“I am happy to put money into a building, but I don’t want to put money into a business,” Tochterman said. “In the short term, we’re trying to clean it up. In the long term, we’re trying to change the facade of the building and get it up to market value.”
Sjostrom, who sold Woody’s Lounge (now Park Avenue Pub) earlier this year after four years of its being on the market, knows it could take years to sell the Towne Lounge. Tochterman maintains that he would never kick Sjostrom out in the cold. But the two men have different visions for the building, and Sjostrom is at a loss.
“I am not going to change this place,” said Sjostrom, who met his wife at the bar and had his first drink there at 21. “But it’s [Tochterman’s] property, and I’m trying to show him good will by trying to be out of here. It’s time for me to move onto something else.”