(Photos by Nick Adams for WSB; above, Bamboo bar manager Erika Pirzadeh, speaking)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Tonight’s community meeting at Bamboo Bar and Grill was preceded by a completely different kind of meeting – one called by authorities and agencies because of what happened outside Bamboo early Sunday.
The Alki Beach establishment’s future depends on how it respond to both meetings.
The community meeting brought about 20 people, including several Bamboo managers and staffers, to the back of the restaurant/bar. Hours earlier, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had filed two assault charges against the man arrested following the Sunday fight that turned into a shooting (here’s our report).
During tonight’s meeting, Bamboo management insisted that while the establishment’s “new” owners (who weren’t present) have actually owned it for almost a year and a half, they have been making changes since a new general manager – longtime West Seattleite and hospitality-industry veteran John Theofelis (below center) – took over a month and a half ago, and will do more.
“We’ve been making changes, but nobody knows if they are too scared to come in here,” Theofelis told WSB before the meeting.
During the meeting, more than one attendee said security presence would make a difference, as Bamboo acknowledged they did not have a security guard on hand Saturday night because they felt that, without live entertainment that night, it wasn’t needed.
They also acknowledged that both groups involved in the clash – which, court documents revealed today, left one victim with a bullet lodged close to his heart – had been inside Bamboo earlier. Employees say the groups had been “cut off” but had not shown signs of trouble or conflict in time for them to make any sort of proactive call to police.
First: What the authorities are doing. While the Seattle Police Southwest Precinct had two representatives at tonight’s meeting – Operations Lt. Pierre Davis and Community Police Team Officer Ken Mazzuca – the major news came from the City Attorney Office’s precinct liaison, assistant city attorney (and West Seattleite) Melissa Chin.
Late in the meeting, she rose to discuss the Code Compliance Team meeting held at Bamboo earlier in the day, explaining that participants included police and fire representatives as well as the city’s Director of Nightlife and the state Liquor Control Board.
“We discussed some ways (Bamboo) could improve their safety and their relationship with the community,” she said. “I also firmly warned them of repercussions with their liquor license and business license if this activity continues. We’re working with new management on trying to improve the environment. … We’d like to work with them as much as they can.”
Chin called for the earlier meeting, she told us tonight, because of the Sunday incident. While the LCB will pursue its own investigation, she said Bamboo could face civil liability under the city’s Chronic Nuisance Property ordinance.
Describing the meeting with authorities earlier during tonight’s community discussion, Bamboo bar manager Erika Pirzadeh mentioned that the LCB would “have a training program for (Bamboo) staff” beyond the state certification she says they all already have obtained. “Some laws are changing, so we (will all be) more fresh.”
She also said they had spoken with the liquor board today about “not serving doubles after a certain time of night” as a matter of policy, and other potential policies such as “slow(ing guests) down” after a certain number of rounds.
GM Theofelis had also explained that the multi-agency meeting earlier would result in Bamboo submitting to the city a business plan and a “certified security plan.” Security was a major topic of discussion woven throughout the community meeting.
The Bamboo managers also reiterated, repeatedly, that their music no longer included hip-hop. (Before the speakers were turned down for the meeting, we heard ’60s classics, by the Supremes and the Mamas and Papas.)
And they stressed their community ties; Theofelis said he’s been an active member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church for decades – “I say that because I want you to know, I am your neighbor, not your enemy.” He added that he has two sons working at Bamboo, and “I would not do anything to put them in jeopardy. I want you to know we are not promoting or endorsing any kind of violence. I lost a daughter to a drive-by in 2001 – I don’t know anyone who would detest violence more than me.”
Pirzadeh said she had “worked here on and off for the past five years” while going to school for a business degree and grew up “at 59th and Hanford, up the hill. … We really want to be a part of the community, we want to get the West Seattle commnity in here. … It’s so easy to get a bad reputation; it’s so hard to re-establish yourself.”
Theofelis contended that the former hip-hop programming “was encouraging outside neighborhoods to come in – some were a negative influence … The music we’re doing now is soft, late ’70s early ’80s type of music and it’s geared toward an older crowd, older than what we were bringing in in the past.”
“With the new music,” Pirzadeh continued, “we had tried not to have a security officer present at the door … being a restaurant with a security officer at the door … gives a negative image. We were hoping that we would attract a different crowd. … It is a work in progress.”
“We have a security consultant in place, and are in the process of securing that to a fulltime position,” Theofelis added. In the meantime, though, the managers said they were only committing to security on nights with live music. That was challenged by one man in attendance, who said, “If I were in your position, I’d have (a fulltime on-site security guard) for at least the next two or three weeks.”
“Every day?” asked Theofelis.
“Every day,” the man replied. “I don’t know your cash flow … but if you have to go out of business [because of trouble], that’s not good for your cash flow either.”
The managers later said Bamboo has 31 security cameras. They also said things have been slow since the music change; the man who advised full-time security said, “You say things have been fine, no problems … if you say you have been monitoring and this [shooting] still happened, that scares me more.”
Questions from attendees included how staffers know when someone’s been overserved – Pirzadeh’s reply included watching patrons, while she noted that “everyone shows intoxication differently … we’re not going to catch them all.”
Asked about their closing time, she said, “We close early sometimes” and at one point mentioned 12:30 am.
Attendees wondered about the owners; Theofelis said they own two local Amante Pizza franchises, including the one on Capitol Hill. (Online records show the same name on the West Seattle Amante.) He said they no longer live here “but they are very much a part of and ingrained in the community; they are not just trying to take the West Seattle money and leave.” Asked if they have other local bar experience, Theofelis said the Capitol Hill Amante has a full bar, and has not had trouble that he is aware of.
Then came the question: “What actually happened on Saturday – did it start inside and spill outside? Was it just out front?” (The police narrative in court documents from the charges filed today does not go into that much depth.)
A Bamboo employee who said she was bartending on Saturday night said two groups who had been cut off went outside, and that’s where it happened. But they were outside for a while, she said, “with no sign of a fight,” and no suggestion there might be trouble.
Then a man identifying himself as a neighbor and saying he saw what happened went on to say he doesn’t believe it’s “just a problem with the Bamboo – the people causing problems aren’t from here.” (Shooting suspect Michael Helmer is described in police/court documents as a Kent resident.) “I think the community needs to step up,” he continued. “These individuals I witnessed the other night, they were out to hurt somebody. They were probably out looking for trouble. There’s a guy already down, and they were kicking him in the head. The community needs to start calling these things in. … I don’t want to see this where I live.”
Lt. Davis, shortly afterward, added a voice of agreement to that, with a familiar contention that too often, police hear anecdotally about crimes that were never formally reported. “If you see something, say something.” That would help with a commitment of resources, he said, in response to some attendees who said they would like to see police walking the beach more often. “If (reports of lower-level trouble) go into our data system, we can look at it … we know as managers, sergeants, whatever, where to place our resources, how much of the resources.”
How many officers are on duty in West Seattle at any given time? he was then asked. He cautioned that it can vary – but on the “average watch” (shift), maybe 15 to 20.
In response to another question, Lt. Davis confirmed that the Bamboo is considered a drinking establishment – and “you’re not supposed to have a gun” in one.
But, said Theofelis, “There’s no way we would know – we don’t search people.”
So, he then was asked, “what’s going to be different this weekend? What changes do you guys plan on making? Am I going to see the same thing?”
Theofelis promised security and again mentioned the “softer acoustic” music.
What else is going to change? someone asked.
Pirzadeh said the drink menu would change – since some had commented that the drinks were “too strong,” a new menu “in the fall” will have “drinks not quite as strong … to show we’re listening.”
Shortly thereafter, another employee noted that three nearby Alki bars serve until 11 pm, “then there’s here … sometimes (people) just want to find a bar to drink at. We just happen to be the bar they choose. We can’t control what they do.” He brought up the 2009 deadly shooting outside Talarico’s in The Junction (the Steven Bushaw murder, which led to four convictions, with a victim who was specifically targeted in a pre-planned killing).
You can’t make a comparison – aside from facts of the case – said one Alki resident: “Talarico’s isn’t in the middle of a residential district” like Bamboo is, with homes and apartments immediately next door.
It was also pointed out that the presence of “restaurants that turn into bars at night” was a big issue in Alki years ago.
Whatever the case, said Theofelis, “We can’t change the way the world is and the fact people carry guns, some legal, some not. All we can do is promise you that we want to be part of the community. We are your neighbors. We want to be your neighbors.”
Concerned residents were hoping that could be the case: “I want to feel comfortable, that I can walk down here, and not feel the tension,” one woman said.
The residents aren’t the only ones who will be watching; assistant city attorney Chin said that Bamboo already had been on her radar and will be watched closely – the chronic-nuisance ordinance can kick in with three serious incidents in ninety days, or seven over the course of a year.
After the meeting concluded, the conversations continued – inside Bamboo, as well as outside in the early evening sunshine, with patrons dining on the patio and in the front of the house, and managers saying they hope those who say they haven’t been in for years will come in to give them a chance.