The June demise of downtown Oakland's Vibe Lounge didn't augur well for the LGBT community, whose ranks are large in Oakland despite a dearth of entertainment venues. And Vibe was just one in a spate of let-downs. Club Velvet, an on-again, off-again lesbian venue in the Laurel district, appears to have gone straight — save for a few sporadic drag king performances. (At present, the bar's phone is disconnected.) Nonetheless, one local gay bar has managed to surmount the bad economy, and even expand its business. The 31-year-old Bench and Bar, long known as a niche club for gay Latinos, recently opened a second location at 510 17th Street — a prime piece of real estate that used to house the hip-hop joint @17th. It's a risky time for development, the Bench and Bar owners admit. But they have high hopes.
"We were picked from a pool of eighteen organizations," said Alex Loera, who helps run the Bench and Bar corporation with his husband, Charles Bisbee. Their love story roughly coincides with the club's business trajectory. They met in 1995, when Bisbee was managing the bar for another owner. Loera, who originally hails from Mexico City, says he used to drive all the way from Santa Rosa to catch Bench and Bar's Friday night event, "Latin Explosion." At that time, the neighborhood was still a little sketchy. It was certainly a long way from the posh entertainment district that now houses Luka's Taproom, the Uptown, and the Fox. But Loera said that nothing bad ever befell him, and the trip was worth the drive. He knew of only one similarly themed gay Latin club in San Francisco's Mission district, but it was smaller and more insular. Parking was a lot better in Oakland, and the Bench and Bar Club — which at that time was located at 11th and Franklin streets — attracted a wider cross-section of people. Not to mention the DJs played music that Loera listened to at home: a mélange of Latin pop and banda, with some American hits peppered in between.
"They have a real solid base," said Kenny Kröll, a happy-hour bartender who started working at Bench and Bar as a Cal student. "Gay Latinos were the powerhouse behind it. The Latin gay community is really really tight." To this day, he says, patrons routinely drive from as far as Santa Cruz or Modesto to catch the Saturday night banda performances.
Having that customer base gave Bench and Bar a lot of extra mileage in a scene that often defies the laws of supply and demand. Culturally, Oakland has always been hella gay in comparison to other US cities (the most famous phrase about the city was uttered by a lesbian author, after all). Yet while San Francisco is awash in gay infrastructure, Oakland's record has always been pretty spotty. Venerable institutions like the White Horse and Bench and Bar are few and far between. Other clubs like Velvet and Vibe Lounge seemed to fizzle out within months of arrival. In some cases, said local promoter Hae Yong Min, whose "Hella Gay" party packs the Uptown Nightclub twice a month, club owners rely on anachronistic images to market themselves. Min says she's seen the same flyer over and over again: "A dude who's half naked with his chest out, and a chick who looks like she's straight. It's like, really? We haven't changed after twenty years?"
Bench and Bar certainly doesn't suffer for any lack of half-naked dudes. In fact, there's a half-naked dude plastered across the home page of the venue's web site. But the club also has name recognition and longevity. Launched 31 years ago by a judge and lawyer (hence the name), Bench and Bar has seen several iterations since its inception. Current president Bisbee started there as a doorman and worked his way up the ranks. He purchased the club back in 2000 with longtime Bench and Bar DJ Keith Hobbs as a business partner. Kröll started going there on Friday nights as soon as he turned 21, and Hobbs hired him to barback a couple of shifts at the Thursday night lesbian party. ("They drug me through the dirt," said Kröll, who was relatively unschooled in the wherefores of drink-mixing.) Vice President Frank Moore joined in 2002, a couple of years before the club moved from its 11th Street locale to another space on Franklin Street, at the top of a long flight of stairs. A few years ago, Moore and Loera became official partners in the corporation, and Kröll, no longer a novice, returned to man the happy-hour crowd.
It took several months to seal the deal at 510 17th Street, a huge club with a wraparound bar, mezzanine VIP area, and largely air-tight smoking section (in what used to be the "cigar room"). The new club fits 660 people, a mammoth addition to the 420-capacity venue on Franklin St. (which Bench and Bar has rechristened Club 21). It's a much better place to do business, said Loera, who prefers being street-level and wheelchair accessible. Leading an impromptu tour on the day before last week's ribbon-cutting ceremony, he showed off all the amenities at 510 17th Street: a newly installed dance floor and go-go stage with lights underneath; the smoking room with its high ceiling and lounge chairs; a vending machine that served junk food and cigarette packs; a dummy bar with empty bottles of Moët, Courvoisier, and Hornitos. Chairs, tables, and a flat-screen TV in the VIP section were all salvaged from the old hip-hop club.
Even faced with one of the worst recessions in collective memory, Moore and Loera remain sanguine about their expanded business. They've taken steps to amplify the Bench and Bar brand identity, which for years catered to Latino men six nights a week, with one night, "Coochielicious" (now called "Tasty") allocated for women. Now they have a house-music night on Thursdays that's extremely popular in the African-American LGBT crowd (they've hired such DJs as Dedan, who used to spin regularly at Air Lounge and Luka's). Saturdays go to Club Rimshot, a popular men's hip-hop event run by longtime Oakland promoter Joe Hawkins. Regular beauty pageants, vaquero contests, and a monthly "bear" event — for the gay subculture whose members tend to be burly and bearded — will round off the newly diversified program.
For a niche business, Bench and Bar appears to be prospering, and a lot of its success derives from having the market cornered on multiple fronts. It is, after all, the East Bay's only gay Latino establishment, and now it's one of the only house-music venues to boot. Loera said straight people are certainly welcome, too, although the bar did take pains to hang a rainbow flag in front — so that no one confuses it with the hip-hop club @17th. For now, no one's worried about catching the bad-economy blues. "The community is out there and the people are out there," said Loera. "Whether it's a recession or 9-11, we noticed that a lot of people come out and drink."