When Kitty Faria first opened her Emeryville bar in December of 2005, it seemed like an auspicious move. Though the location at 67th and Hollis streets seemed a bit off the beaten path, there was plenty of parking and few residents nearby to complain. The building itself was beautiful. A former smokehouse and cannery, it had a huge front patio and exposed brick walls. "My whole thing was that it be a cross between the Ruby Room and César in Berkeley," she explained. In the first month after the bar's inception, that seemed like an accurate characterization.
But as the bar got more popular, it turned into a dance club, and its clientele changed accordingly. Then last month, shortly after Kitty's celebrated its fifth anniversary, a single incident put the whole business in jeopardy. Early Friday morning, February 4, an argument between two patrons escalated to a full-out brawl. Faria was working the bar that night, and said that it started as an altercation between two women. By the time the police came, it had spiraled out of control. According to Faria, of about one hundred people at the bar that night, roughly one third got embroiled in the melee.
But even worse than the fight itself was the aftermath. Local media outlets — including the Express — widely reported that up to 180 people had been involved in the brawl, and that some patrons brandished knives and guns, a fact that Faria disputes. Worse yet, the bar's cabaret license was up for renewal. Emeryville police Chief Ken James made it known that he would discuss the incident with the Emeryville City Council, which had the power to decide whether or not to renew the bar's cabaret license. "It was really bad timing," Faria said.
She tried doing damage control. That day, Kitty's co-owner Bill MacBeath dropped off the license application in person, while Faria called Chief James to schedule a meeting. But the following week, they received a letter saying that the bar's cabaret permit had expired, and that it was currently operating illegally because MacBeath hadn't submitted his necessary tax return. The owners would have to stop operating as a dance club immediately, or risk a hefty fine or a possible misdemeanor. Faria and MacBeath scrambled to gather the missing information, but were told they wouldn't be able to get their license renewed until the city council heard their case, which would be no earlier than April. And the future doesn't bode well, says Emeryville police captain LaJuan Collier.
Officially, Kitty's was denied its cabaret permit because of paperwork, but Collier said it was due to other factors. "It was an accumulation of crime, noise complaints, and other things," Collier said. "But it was mainly this fight."
According to Collier, residents grouse periodically about noise associated with Kitty's, although Faria says that a lot of those complaints came from across town. The police also cited an episode last year when a patron fired a gun outside the bar. To preempt further problems, Emeryville cops began stationing themselves outside Kitty's on busy nights, waiting for the crowd to spill out after last call.
MacBeath said a lot of those issues are actually side effects of having a cabaret license in the first place. Kitty's started off as a small, independent venture. The owners — Faria, a long-time KALX DJ and third-generation Oaklander, and MacBeath, whose parents owned The Ivy Room in Albany — had a real sense of rootedness in their neighborhood, and a mom-and-pop sensibility. But Kitty's became the type of dance venue that you'd find in a larger metropolitan area, like downtown Oakland or San Francisco. "When you start off, you have a nice bar, your friends come and play records and people dance," he said. "Then they come and tell you that you need a cabaret permit for this. You have to hire this amount of security, your capacity is this much, and the security have to have uniforms." He continued: "... And regular people don't want to come any more, because now it's a club."
In Emeryville, the terms "cabaret" and "dance hall" are pretty all-encompassing. According to the municipal code, any club that hosts live entertainment or permits dancing needs to have a cabaret license. The associated fees aren't that high, Faria said. You don't have to be a clubby kind of bar just to make a return on your investment. And the owners say they didn't necessarily intend to be the kind of club that requires a dress code and a roped line outside. It just happened that way. Kitty's DJs wanted to placate patrons by spinning pop and Top 40 hip-hop. Since it was the only dance club in Emeryville, word of mouth spread pretty fast.
"The bar has always been two different bars," Faria explained. "You have an after-work crowd, then you have a night crowd." As the night crowd got bigger, Emeryville cops got more vigilant. The city took away two parking spots in front of the bar so that police could see the line of people going in. The cops asked Faria to make patrons line up behind a rope. They also wanted her security guards to wear black shirts with white block lettering, so they would be easy to identify. Then they encouraged Faria to change the type of music the bar played.
"Whenever they tell us to do something that makes sense, we'll do it," Faria said, explaining why she took it upon herself to turn Kitty's into a world music club. Last summer, the owners started doing a Cuban salsa night and playing more reggaetón. Gradually, they began eradicating the club crowd, and replacing it with more of a multicultural crowd. Faria was even planning to host a bi-weekly lesbian party called Butta. She said she took a hit financially in November and December, but began recovering in January. The noise complaints abated and it looked like Kitty's was on the upswing.
But now, Faria and MacBeath have found themselves in a perilous situation. Without a cabaret license, they're unable to have DJs, or any form of entertainment, for that matter, which they say is crucial to their survival. "The cabaret license thing forbids us from doing a lot of stuff," Faria said. "We can't do comedy nights or karaoke. We've got our hands tied." She and MacBeath had to lay off all their DJs and bouncers, cutting the staff down to a skeleton crew of six people. Faria says in the last month she's lost two-thirds of her business. It's questionable whether Kitty's will survive at all.
"People know us as a place to go at night for DJs and dancing," she said. "They've never considered my bar a place to just hang out and play a board game." At this point, though, she thinks a miracle would have to happen for Emeryville to renew the cabaret license. So maybe rebranding is in order. Faria laughed dejectedly at the thought. "Hey — we're a bar with no DJs. Come hang out and ... talk?"