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Her Own Cheers For Five Hard Years

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By Vanena Ralay
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 1999; Page F16

Before the Kala Kala bar consumed my life, it was a place where I would go to get away, a smoke-free jazz club in the heart of Adams-Morgan on the trendy 18th Street strip. It was a comfortable place to relax when I was a consultant with clients in the neighborhood. The owner was eager to sell, so I spread the word on his behalf.

Unexpectedly, a restaurant owner suggested a partnership. He had a strong following, I came from a successful business management background and my business plan looked solid, so I took the leap.

My original idea was to be the silent partner, an investor and the bookkeeper. A year later, however, I was anything but quietly involved. My partner and I still served as the sole certified bartenders, waiters, stock boys and busboys. Why? We couldn't afford the luxury of a full staff. I had depleted my savings and twisted my mother's arm for a loan to meet half of the purchase price of $65,000.

The club was blessed with a tavern license, which meant we didn't have to serve food. Drinking and dancing were just about all you could do at the Kala Kala -- no food, not even chips, no thrills. So we turned it into a dance club with African rhythms. Reggae, Soca and Zouk were all part of the disc jockey's repertoire. The atmosphere was unpretentious and very alive. Soon the club was packed every weekend.

The first two years were the most fruitful, when the bar became a hot nightspot. We carried a selection of African beers, the deejay catered to the customers' requests, and we charged $5 at the door, which included a drink. We placed great emphasis on introducing customers to one another and tried to get as personal as we could, without being intrusive, showing them that we were approachable and had the same problems as anyone else.

Then the fury died down, and so did half of the profits -- another bar had grabbed the spotlight, as is typical in this line of business. This is when my partner decided to go back home without ever fulfilling his half of the bargain. Given all I had invested both emotionally and financially, I had no choice but to continue business and assume his debt.

Suddenly and somewhat reluctantly, I was the sole owner of Kala Kala. Running the business on my own was especially tough. Gaining the respect of the clients was an education all its own. Meeting all the financial responsibilities was an unrelenting juggling act. I successfully pleaded with the landlord to defer the rent and remaining monthly purchase payments, twisted my father's arm for a loan for advertising and to meet the past dues, and mastered the art of being thrifty. To barter became second nature. Family and friends were called upon as plumbers when the sump pump jammed or as painters when the bar needed a face-lift.

But it all paid off. The most gratifying part was watching the progression of the business. A year into running the bar by myself, I had paid my parents back and hired a busboy and bartender. At last, I was mixing with customers rather than mixing their drinks. Watching my father, Papa Roger, proudly greet the clients also was rewarding.

He had come a long way, after all. In the Malagasy culture, running a bar wasn't exactly proper for his daughter, but I had successfully created a watering hole that was reminiscent of our neighborhood bars back home. In Africa, the neighborhood bar was smoke-filled and loud, nothing fancy, but you were always sure to meet a friend or two, any hour of the day.

Why did I want out? The hours were overwhelming, both in duration and the late-night nature of the job. My schedule was the opposite of the conventional world's, so it was hard to spend time with family and friends without arriving late, leaving early or falling asleep between the main course and dessert.

Maybe even tougher was working so hard while having to be social, seven days a week.

Can you imagine talking about everything and nothing every evening until 3 a.m.? Whether you feel like it or not? Not to sound ungrateful, but I had regulars, the same regulars for five years. I think after five years, seven days a week and a few drinks, their stories got a little old. Maybe I should have had a drink or two!

How did I make out? Financially, I still have the debts I incurred before and independent of Kala Kala, but my peace of mind is worth a million dollars. Emotionally and professionally, I've been enriched with the capacity to be more patient, diplomatic and consistent; no favoritism, mood swings or claiming my point of view when inappropriate.

Do I miss it? No, five years was enough. Let the new owners have the headaches. Would I do it again? Maybe, if I win the lottery. Would I change anything? Absolutely not.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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