Hot Rod’s and Headhunters
Midtown’s burgeoning gay scene is big business, and it has created some problems for two old friends
Back when Terry Sidie used to own BoJangles, the popular gay bar on Folsom Boulevard that dates back to the mid-1970s, an 18-year-old regular named T.J. Bruce announced to him one day that he wanted to go into the same business.
“I told him I was going to own a video bar in this town,” recalled Bruce. “He goes, ‘Well, it’s a tough business, a lot tougher than it looks.’ And he’s right. It is a tough business.”
Bruce should know. Twenty years later, he and Sidie run rival gay bars across the street from one another. Sidie is the longtime owner of Faces, at 2000 K Street in Midtown. Opposite him, at 2001 K Street, the upstart kid’s place is The Depot. On weekends, the two nightspots are anchor attractions that bring hundreds of gay folks out to the section of town sometimes dubbed Lavender Heights.
If the area has a mini-mogul, it’s Sidie, who opened Faces 19 years ago after buying a failed gay bar in the same spot. He later sold BoJangles to a friend, but he now owns Club 21, another gay nightclub around the corner, and several other commercial properties in the neighborhood. Faces, with its drab exterior and low-pitched roof, may not look like much except an old steakhouse—it once was, actually—but inside, it’s split up into four different bars and dance floors.
Sidie helped out his old friend and new competitor with plenty of advice when The Depot opened in 1997. “Everything we knew, we shared over there, and we were happy to do so,” he said. The Depot is located in an old house that, according to Bruce, was a dive bar for decades. The new interior is sleek and modern and filled with TV screens constantly showing music videos, stand-up routines and, on Thursday nights, Will and Grace. The upstairs, where there are a few offices behind the big bay windows, is a historic old home with elaborate woodwork and a great, creaky staircase. But after a few years of building the business, Bruce, who co-owns The Depot with his mom, Marjorie Bruce, wanted to expand and planned a new dance hall and burger joint next door.
That’s when things went sour between Sidie and Bruce.
Sidie opposed The Depot’s plans and took his case to city planners. Bruce pressed ahead. Then, Sidie moved forward with plans to expand Faces and open an upscale eatery across the street. “He fought us to the end,” Bruce said, adding that he didn’t bother to fight Sidie’s expansion effort. (Sidie denies fighting Bruce. Instead, he said the two had called a truce.)
Now, both owners have the green light, and each could be pouring more than $1 million into the new ventures.
But getting there didn’t do wonders for their friendship.
Though Bruce had been eyeing an expansion, Sidie was the first to go to the city with plans three years ago. But Sidie didn’t have enough parking spaces to get city approval. So, he bought a small parking lot across the street and started working on agreements with nearby businesses that didn’t use their parking spaces at night. “I’ve got leases signed and ready to go so that I have all the parking I need,” Sidie said.
Meanwhile, Bruce moved ahead with his own plans. A year and a half ago, he spent $200,000 to add an enclosed patio to the back of The Depot. There’s now a second bar back there and, through one of the skylights, a good view of the ornate old woodwork underneath the eave of the roof above. Revenues increase by an average of 10 percent a year, Bruce said, adding that he tries to invest it all back into the business.
At about the same time, when a flower shop moved out next door on K Street, Bruce bought the old place and gutted it. The building, another old house, is being totally rebuilt inside. It will house Hot Rod’s, a burger joint aimed at the lunch, dinner and nightlife crowds. The G Spot, a small sex-themed novelty shop now leasing space in The Depot building, will move into the new building, which has additional space upstairs that will be leased to two salons. (Bruce also started making deals to let patrons park at nearby businesses, including at SN&R.)
But the bigger part of the plan, and what bothered Sidie, was Bruce’s application to build a dance club between The Depot and Hot Rod’s. Bruce wanted to build a new, two-story building in what’s now a small parking lot between the buildings. It would be a separate venue connected to The Depot by a common corridor. Outside would be a modern, industrial-looking design, and inside would be a ground-floor dance hall open to a second-floor mezzanine lounge above.
Bruce filed his application in January 2002, and Sidie called his lawyer. Through his attorney, Sidie tried to block approval by firing off letters to city officials. In one, he requested additional scrutiny of environmental impacts by city planners; in another, he asked officials to deny the application because the dance club would bring traffic, overburden parking and create public-safety problems.“We were at odds for many, many months,” Bruce said. “The issue was competition. He didn’t want competition, so he came up with parking issues and safety issues.”
The feud was big news in the small, tightly knit gay community, and word spread quickly. But when the planning commission approved Bruce’s plan in August, Sidie didn’t appeal. He said he only wanted to make sure the parking and safety issues were resolved.
“Neither one of us wanted anybody to deny anything,” Sidie said. “A few gay people got all bent out of shape because they thought I was trying to stop him. I was trying to make the whole neighborhood safer for all of us.”
Bruce said construction probably will start on the dance club in January. He hopes to open Hot Rod’s, the burger joint, by Labor Day. The total price tag of both jobs is $1.8 million.
Sidie is also planning to break ground on a big expansion in January. Instead of trying to stop The Depot, he’s planning to nearly double the size of the old Faces building. In back, where there’s a small parking lot, Sidie wants to erect a two-story structure with a pool inside. And by using a pre-engineered steel structure, he hopes to get it open in three months. He hired architect David Mogavero last week.
“It’s just enough room for 30 or 40 people to lay around in,” Sidie said, referring to blueprints spread out on his desk in an upstairs office. “We’ll do a tropical thing and try to create more happening in the daytime.” The building, he added, will have a modern, industrial-looking design—and features he’s not ready to reveal to the competitor across the street. “I don’t want to give you all the secrets so my enemy can read it,” he said.
Once the expansion opens, Sidie said, he’ll close the old Faces building and do a total remodeling.
Sidie is also getting ready to open a restaurant across 20th Street. He recently signed a lease on an old garage that, until a couple months ago, housed an auto-repair shop. Sidie is already transforming the place into what soon will be a swanky restaurant—packed with video screens. He’s been calling it Headhunters Video Lounge and Grille but said he may just go with the name K Street Garage instead. Bruce, however, sees a copycat competitor. “I think when Terry opens his club across the street, it could hurt us sales-wise. No question about that,” he said. “It could hurt us. The way I understand it, he’s going to go in direct competition with us. We have been the video bar.”
Though Bruce lamented that Sidie was copying his video-bar style, Sidie said the same thing about Bruce, whom he sees as imitating the activities at Faces.
“It’d be nice if they came up with some more original things,” he said. “They almost do the very same things that we do, just on a different night.”
If there’s tension between the old friends, it seems to be mostly attributable to the fact that the gay scene in the neighborhood is vibrant and booming. Bruce guessed that The Depot serves a total of 300 to 400 customers on busy nights. On a good night for Sidie, 500 pass through Faces’ front door—and it could be as many as 800 to 1,000 a night after the expansion.
There’s a lot of money to be made—or lost.
In addition to the small fortune Bruce is pouring into his plans, Sidie said he’s spending $250,000 on Headhunters plus $600,000 to $1 million to grow Faces. But he’s just getting started. Next to Headhunters is a small, windowless warehouse now used as a delivery distribution center for florists. When the florists move out in a couple years, Sidie said, he wants to open a gym and a chain clothing store called Gay-MART and maybe open a coffee shop nearby, too. He even kicked around the idea of putting a five-story parking garage with ground-floor retail on the same block, but he found that “the cost is a little bit prohibitive right now.”
Sidie added that revenues at Faces are down by about 7 percent from two years ago. He’s hoping the pool and the restaurant will start bringing in more of a crowd during the day. “People aren’t really drinking as much as they used to,” he said, “which is a good thing actually.”
Differences aside, Sidie and Bruce agree on one thing: Lavender Heights is becoming something bigger than the sum of its parts.
“It’s very huge,” Bruce said. “Most of the big cities in California have strong gay hubs, and Sacramento never really did. I just found that odd. It’s changing a lot, and it will be really amazing, I think, in the next two to five years. In that time frame, we’ll see big things.” Instead of watching locals head off to the gay Mecca, San Francisco’s Castro District, Bruce said he thinks Sacramento is becoming a regional gay destination that will draw people from places like Chico, Reno, Stockton and even San Francisco.
Sidie has the same vision and a desire to shape that growth.
“My whole thing is the more gay businesses we have down here and make this the Castro, the better,” he said. “All I have to do is get them all right here in this three- or four-block area.”
While they press forward with parallel plans, Sidie and Bruce are doing their best to bury the hatchet. They had lunch a couple weeks ago, but repairing the relationship sounds like an evolving process.
“We have some hard feelings,” Sidie said. “We had been friends for a long time, and we talked. We don’t talk as much as we used to.”
There had been “really heavy tension,” Bruce said, but things go back and forth.
“If someone feels like a threat, then you’re less friendly. And then at some point you just … end up talking again,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t talk, but it’s different now; there’s a different vibe. I’m doing my thing, and he’s doing his thing.”