By Ryan Wynne
This is the chronology of a local business on the verge of closure. The story will follow Green Frog Acoustic Tavern co-owner James Hardesty as he decides if he can keep the doors open. If not, he will close the bar Nov. 18, the business’s fifth anniversary. This article will be updated every few days leading up to that date.
On Oct. 13, James Hardesty, co-owner of Green Frog Acoustic Tavern, sends out an e-mail update to subscribers of the company newsletter. In it, he reveals some potentially bad news: The tavern is teetering on the verge of closure.
Here’s how that newsletter starts:
“Good afternoon, folks. It’s been a while since I wrote one of these and for those of you who look forward to them, I apologize. To be honest, I’ve been contemplating this update for some time. It’s a letter that scares the hell out of me to write and I have been utterly depressed to do so. But here it is and here it goes.
“The Green Frog is in bad shape. It’s beyond any repair that I can do by myself. It has been too slow for too long to sustain itself as a business and every month that I stay open it disintegrates further. So, I am going to apply one more effort to save it. If that effort fails the Green Frog will close its doors on November 18, the 5th anniversary.”
This isn’t the first time Hardesty has notified customers that the tavern needs some community stimulus dollars. But the most recent update is more urgent. Usually, summer is the slow season for bars and that held true at the Green Frog in 2010. But it wasn’t just summer; the whole year has been fairly stagnant, James says in an interview, and this time the financial situation is dire and may be beyond repair.
“It’s not just my bar. It’s a community,” James says. “There are a lot of bar owners that say everything is fine until the day they close, but I don’t want to be that guy; I want to be honest.”
James admits he’s not a businessman — his collar is bluer than it is white and he wears T-shirts displaying beer logos to work. Before opening the Green Frog, he worked at Alcoa Intalco Works and later Carlson Steel Works Inc. and decided to open the tavern because he thought it would be fun, he says.
“Not a lot of thought went into this,” James says.
Still, he has created a space where community members of all drinking ages, and his father, now gather for thoughtfully selected micro brews, conversation, live shows and impromptu jam sessions that often involve instruments that line the wall across from the bar.
James wants to save the tavern and tried to come up with some ways he might bring in revenue. He could start selling brown liquors, such as whiskey, which have a higher profit margin, but that would be too expensive to implement right now. He explored the idea of pre-selling drinks for the year, but found there could be legal ramifications for doing so. He is still considering doing away with debit and credit cards and only accepting cash, which could save him between $600 and $700 per month, he says.
One of his ideas has already come to fruition, though. On Nov. 2, he held a benefit concert at the Wild Buffalo.
Thursday, Nov. 10 (eight days remaining)
Viva la Green Frog, the benefit show at the Wild Buffalo, went well, James says in between pouring drinks for customers at 4:10 p.m.
It’s pretty early on a Thursday night, but the place isn’t dead. A crowd of seven people of various middle ages sits at one of the tables with just as many drinks in front of them. A young woman in thick framed glasses sits at the bar.
Thanks to the support of local musicians and the Wild Buffalo, the benefit show garnered $2,300 for the Green Frog, but James says he’s still not sure he will be able keep the bar open. Right now, he is just playing catch up.
“We’ve got a long way to go to get this thing back into the black,” he says.
As James is talking, a regular customer walks up to the bar for a refill. The man gets his beer and tells James he won’t be in again until next week, and then looks at James expectantly.
“Well, are we here next week?” the man asks, wondering whether James will still be in business at that point.
“We’ll see,” James responds.
It’s 4:40 p.m. now, and the tavern is transforming from a gangly teenager into a filled-out young man. The number of customers has doubled and 16 people sit — some alone — reading or talking, each appears to be accompanied by a drink.
One man wearing a black, felt cowboy hat, black leather jacket and gray mustache selects a guitar from the wall, sits down at the bar with the instrument and his beer and begins playing and singing. James later says the man is his dad, Ron.
When James and his business partner, Nate Carlson, decided to open the Green Frog, they intended to have unplanned jam sessions and live music, but not as many scheduled shows as they currently do. James says there have been somewhere around 1,600 shows at the bar since it opened.
“I never really envisioned it becoming as music heavy as it has become, as far as the acts go,” James says.
Those shows are both a blessing and a burden. James has befriended numerous people and made a lot of contacts in the music industry and he says show nights are the biggest nights for the bar.
At the same time, the shows may be driving away some folks, he says. Cover charges for shows range between $5 and $10, which James says could be considered high to some people who don’t want to pay a cover at all. Considering the talented musicians who play at the tavern, James says the price tag is necessary.
Live music is likely only a small piece of the lack-of-business puzzle. James says it’s pretty obvious everywhere that people just aren’t spending as much.
It’s just before 5 p.m. now. There are 22 people in the bar and Ron has stopped playing guitar. Ron was one of the the musicians who played at the benefit concert. Other acts included the Librarians, Big Sur, Slow Jam and SmokeWagon.
The show was a good push, James says, but he still doesn’t know whether he will have to close his doors Nov. 18. At this point, customers have responded to his call to action and business is picking up. He says the situation is better than it was three weeks ago and he’s leaning toward keeping the Green Frog open.
“I’m either too stubborn or too stupid to know when to quit,” James says.
Then his diehard attitude disappears briefly and he says the decision really depends on how much business he gets over the next week.
Nov. 16 (two days remaining)
With just two days until the looming closure, James has reached a decision, which he announces in a Nov. 16 e-mail newsletters.
“I’ve been getting the question ‘so are you staying open or closing?’ a lot these days. Well, against all better judgment, the answer is…open…for a while.
“And that means that Thursday [the tavern's fifth anniversary] will be a celebration of staying alive rather than kicking the bucket…I could not have made it this far without you, however, and I think you should all give yourselves a pat on the back.”
Business seems steady at The Green Frog. On Friday, Nov. 12, the tavern was already filling in just after opening at 4 p.m. And at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14., the small space was packed full of people, about a third of whom were musicians spilling off the stage.
There was another crowd Tuesday, Nov. 16. Here’s the report from that day.
Bartender Stanzi Harris says the number of customers looks to be on par with those on other Tuesdays. Overall, though, business appears to be improving, she says.
“They’re picking back up,” Stanzi says.
Again, a statement from James’ recent newsletter:
“You guys really pulled through for me the past few weeks. And if it were just present and future expenses that were of concern then we would be in great shape. That little thing called past debt still has me shackled, but I’m working the pins loose…
“So, it’s business…but not as usual. There are some behind the scenes things happening to give us a better chance of staying around, although nothing is a quick fix.”
One of those changes, according to the letter, is reducing the number of cover-charge shows, a change which he has already begun implementing over the past couple of weeks.
“It has worked out pretty well so far, so I’m going to keep going with that until it proves itself ineffective,” James says in the letter.
The ebb of musicians won’t likely be a disappointment for Kable Wilmoth, a regular Green Frog customer.
On Nov. 16, Kable looks to be the only person in the tavern wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts ― it’s close to 50 degrees outside.
“He wears pants like once a year,” his buddy Michael says.
Kable and Michael are sitting at a table with two other men eating peanuts from a plastic basket they placed inside a pizza box that would be empty if not for the crumbs. After getting what they want from the peanuts, they drop the shells on the floor to join the small mounds of other discarded shells.
A lot of people visit the tavern for the music, but Kable says he likes the Green Frog because of the beer.
“It’s a great bar as far as beer selection, atmosphere,” Kable says.
If the Green Frog ever closes, Kable says, it would be a big loss for beer drinkers. James orders a lot of beer that can’t be found at any other bars in town, he says, and he likes the brewers nights, during which breweries big and small bring a variety beers to the bar.
Kable may be in it for the beer, but he says he also sees the Green Frog as a representation of Bellingham. When he has visitors from out of town and wants to show them Bellingham, one of his stops is the Green Frog because of the beer and the crowd.
“How would you guys describe the crowd?” he asks his companions.
An eclectic cross section of Bellingham with a range of generations, Michael answers.
That cross section of Bellingham is the regular Green Frog crowd. Those regulars, who drank beer and attended and performed in a benefit show to support the tavern, may have convinced James to keep the Green Frog open. And in his newsletter, James expresses his gratitude for that support.
“Thanks for allowing me to continue. I really do appreciate it,” the letter says. “I love you all, except for that one guy that I really don’t, but you know who you are. Until next time…visit soon, visit often, drink as much as you can. Thank you.”
James will hold a anniversary party for the Green Frog Nov. 18. Curtis Eller, “New York City’s angriest yodeling banjo player,” will play. The cover is $5, and in his letter, James says he will offer happy hour prices all night to those wearing 1920s-era clothing.
Nov. 18: Celebrating, not saying goodbye
It’s 7 p.m. on the Green Frog’s anniversary night, and while most partygoers have yet to show up to the celebration, tavern owner James Hardesty is not drinking alone.
He is sitting at the bar next to a long-time Green Frog patron. Bellingham City Councilman Terry Bornemann has been visiting the bar since it first opened, Bornemann says, with a pint of Trickster IPA on the bar in front of him.
Bornemann stops by when he has free time, mostly for the music, he says. Tonight he’s not at the Green Frog just for the music, though.
“Tonight I just wanted to stop by and toast five years,” he says, raising his glass slightly. “He hosts the best music around. Some of the best singer-songwriters I have seen were in this bar.”
The past five years have exposed Bornemann to a lot of good music, and he hopes the Green Frog stays open for at least another five, he says.
“It really comes down to whether I get bored,” James says. “At least for the time being I have enough money to (stay open).”
James decides to stay open because he can. That doesn’t mean he’s in the clear or even out of the red, though. While business picked up enough to convince James to keep the Green Frog open, he still owes money — in October, the tavern had a judgment for $11,034.19 in unpaid Department of Revenue taxes.
The business’s debt hasn’t changed much; what has changed the most is James’ attitude toward it, he says. But he is feeling better about the Green Frog’s financial situation and is encouraged by the increased number of customers.
“If people want it, then I will continue doing it. I mean, contrary to popular belief I don’t always think it’s about me,” James says, before letting out a hearty roar of a laughter.
Stanzi Harris, who is bartending, overhears him and is quick to respond.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” she quips.
The Green Frog is staying open, but it’s not going to remain exactly the same. James says he is making changes that will be better financially for the bar. For the most part, he won’t have cover shows on weekdays anymore. He also decides to host a trivia night on Wednesdays.
For more information about the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern, visit www.acoustictavern.com or stop by the bar at 902 N. State St. #104.