Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club impresario Rick Brown was just a few months into his ownership of the Wisconsin Avenue nightclub when he sat down for a three-hour gut check with a friend who had a similar business in New York.
It was September 2013, and the club — which has splashed live music along a mixed strip on busy Wisconsin Avenue — was muddling along. Brown, a real estate investor, was fishing for tips on how to juice the business. He and his various partners had sunk $7 million bringing the 480-seat, historic movie theater back to life.
As Brown and his friend talked, Brown asked him why his New York club had no music act for the forthcoming Saturday night. His friend said he saved Saturdays for weddings and bar mitzvahs, requiring none of the risk or expense of selling tickets.
“I said I hadn’t focused on bar mitzvahs. I was doing national music acts,” Brown recalled.
The friend had some advice.
“Next October,” said the friend, “I have a whole month of Saturdays booked for private parties and corporate events. I will have $100,000 in deposits for those events in my bank account, earning interest. On the other hand, you will have laid out $50,000 to $100,000 in deposits to music artists to appear on Saturday nights.”
Brown heard the music.
Thanks to his friend, Brown appears to have changed the arc of his nascent business.
He hired an experienced banquet manager to bring in those high-margin weddings and corporate celebrations without the labor of selling tickets. The jazz and supper club has increased its share of revenue from private parties toward 30 percent. He has started an author series (Ralph Nader is the May 12 guest) and has begun staging jazz brunches as well.
The supper club is cash-positive this year, and Brown is gradually turning what was a real estate play into an entertainment success story — maybe.
Brown, 65, isn’t a complete walk-on when it comes to music. He grew up in Silver Spring, where his father supported four sons as a full-time jazz drummer. His mother, Florence DeSando, was on the Bethesda Theater’s stage in 1947 when Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School held its graduation there. She later worked at the Copacabana in New York.
Brown attended St. John’s College High School in Northwest Washington, then graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County. He attended Towson State University, where he cut his teeth on organization skills running various charity events as president of his junior and senior classes.
“I have always been involved in organizing and multitasking,” Brown said.
After graduation, he started selling houses in Montgomery County. He eventually gravitated toward commercial real estate and has been a player in the Washington area for three decades.
Brown launched his own real estate company in 1987, and helped develop parts of the north side of Massachusetts Avenue (NOMA) in the District. He hit one of his home runs when he helped get a 140-acre farm annexed it into the city of Frederick, Md., then turned around and sold 440 townhouse lots to Aoki Corp. In the past eight years, Brown has raised $60 million in equity for a quarter billion dollars in real estate across the Mid-Atlantic.
Raising money and financing real estate— “that’s my sweet spot.”
Brown first saw the Bethesda Theater as another sweet deal. It had been a movie theater from 1938 to the 1980s. Then it became the Bethesda Cinema and Drafthouse, showing movies and serving beer and food.
When developer Tom Bozzutto wanted to build his 240-unit Whitney apartment tower above the theater, he was required to renovate the theater to get zoning approval. As part of the new zoning, the landmark was required to keep its art deco marque and be dedicated to live entertainment.
It still has the historic facade, but the live entertainment folded when its nonprofit went into foreclosure.
Along came Brown, who bought the theater from BB&T bank for $2.9 million. What drew him to the property was the fact that it had undergone a $13 million renovation and had access to an attached, 400-car parking garage.
“I thought this was a good, long-term asset value,” he said. “It’s a tremendous piece of real estate.”
The location seemed good. There are thousands of apartments and hotel rooms within a short walk, and more being built every month. The Bethesda Metro stop is down the street. Pricey neighborhoods like Chevy Chase and Edgemoor lie a few blocks away.
“I was like, ‘Hello. There are too many pieces here.’ ”
He envisioned it as a supper club, a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s, when the Copacabana was the hot nightspot in New York.
But he only wanted to be the landlord. He didn’t want to run the club.
And there’s the rub.
After he failed to find a taker, he had run the business himself.
He plowed millions of dollars more into the project, taking out a $4.6 million loan backed by the Small Business Administration. He used his contacts to raise an additional $1.5 million from a group of 25 founders who put between $25,000 nad $100,000 apiece. They include Steve Hull of Bethesda magazine, Sam Weaver of Chevy Chase Acura, commercial real estate broker Paul Collins with Cassidy Turley, and real estate supersalesman Marc Fleisher of The Fleisher Group.
Brown put up $600,000, and the club opened March 1, 2013, with a brand-new kitchen. He owns half the real estate and nearly three-quarters of the concert business.
The first year has been mixed. More than 40,000 customers have passed through the old theater doors over the past 14 months to see 225 music acts, from jazz star Branford Marsalis to Dave Mason to country singer Wynonna Judd.
Tickets for the shows run from $10 to $50, depending on the artist. There is a $10 minimum for food and beverage. The concerts are averaging around 1,000 customers a week, which is about a third of capacity. Brown knows he needs to boost the attendance.
The company has taken in about $800,000 in ticket revenue, and twice that — about $1.6 million — from food and beverage. The biggest expense, not surprisingly, is the 58-person payroll. Interest and principal on the $4.6 million debt come to about $22,000 a month.
With monthly revenue running about $250,000, the business is cash positive, but not by much. Brown said the music acts range in price from $2,000 to $15,000, with one regrettable booking that came in at $25,000.
“I haven’t repeated that mistake,” he said.
Brown has tried to break through the conventional wisdom that the food at a venue like his is not exactly haute cuisine. He proudly points to reports on Yelp, and said his cuisine holds up well against the finicky Bethesda foodies.
In fact, as we chatted last Thursday, Brown was preparing to host 400 guests for the annual Suburban Hospital gala.
“Good margins and good publicity,” said the budding impresario.