(L-R, Feedback Lounge co-owner Jeff Gilbert, general manager Bradi Jones, co-owner Matt Johnson)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
If you can make it to the Feedback Lounge (WSB sponsor) sometime today/tonight, go ahead and break out in song: “Happy Birthday,” or better yet, “Birthday,” would be appropriate. Today’s the 1st anniversary of Opening Night for Morgan Junction’s rock ‘n’ roll bar/restaurant.
The Feedback’s proprietors have already published a wry-laughter-inducing list of the Top 20 Lessons from their first year – you can read it on the Feedback site. But there’s of course more to the story, so co-owners Jeff Gilbert and Matt Johnson agreed to clear some time for us earlier this week to sit down and look back, while also looking ahead.
First: Unless you spend a ton of time at Feedback Lounge, you might be wondering who does what in this partnership.
That’s been a work in progress, they acknowledge, taking a break to talk with us at the bar. They’ve now “settled into our roles,” Jeff says, but how they thought it would work, before they opened the doors, “was all out the window,” as Matt puts it. “When we first opened, everybody was stepping on each other’s toes, or standing away from each other’s toes, too much.” Back to Jeff: “I have to stand back – I don’t belong in the kitchen, or behind the bar.” He does the marketing, the website, the art curation (more on that later), among other “front of house” type functions.
Oh, and the cleaning. If you’ve checked out the Feedback Lounge website, it sometimes mentions a list of music that’s being listened to during cleaning. That’s not a joke – Jeff tries out new albums while scrubbing the place down during the fewer-than-before hours it’s closed. “Bleach, water and gloves!” he says proudly, declaring that he’s “gotten to know the floors really well” and proclaiming their establishment to have “extraordinarily clean bathrooms.” Those facilities are their pride and joy, since the plumbing took a lot of extra work before they opened one year ago tonight at 6451 California SW.
“One year,” muses Jeff. “That feels weird to me” – in some cases, it seems like a lot longer, he muses.
No matter how well you plan, when you go into business for yourself, you can’t predict some – much – of what’s going to happen. So we asked them what’s been surprising along the way.
“We’ve evolved into more of a neighborhood kind of place than we thought when we first opened,” Matt says. “I think people thought, loud music, rock ‘n’ roll bar …”
“Just a good rock ‘n’ roll neighborhood place,” summarized Jeff.
“The cocktail part of it has gone over better than I thought,” allowed Matt, whose responsibilities include being in charge of the bar.
“We weren’t even open six months when we won Best Cocktail from KING 5’s Best of Western Washington,” Jeff grinned. “We didn’t even know we were being nominated … we aced out 57 other places. … The two drinks that put us on the map were the St. Basil and the Red Rickey.”
Just before Feedback Lounge opened last year, we rolled video as Matt demonstrated the St. Basil:
Using unusual ingredients is one of his trademarks. He’s demure about it, but his business partner is not. Jeff points out the Honeybush became a smash hit.
“Kind of a tea,” Matt explains. “Tastes like honey without the sweetness … soak (the honeybush) in vodka, fresh lemon, ginger black-pepper syrup. It’s like an Arnold Palmer for grownups. It was my reaction to all those sweet-tea vodkas that are coming out.” And the customers’ reaction to his creations has been heartening, he says: “When we first opened up, I put out a cocktail list and I didn’t know if people would look at it and say feh, give me a jack and coke .. .but it’s gone over really well.”
The Honeybush cocktail will be on the new drink menu that the Feedback is scheduled to debut next weekend. “That’ll (include) our bid for Best Cocktail 2010,” Jeff proclaims. “Probably two-thirds newer stuff,” elaborates Matt, “things that might have been specials in the past … we’ll still have everything from this menu still available, even if it doesn’t appear on the menu.”
This summer, you’ll be able to enjoy your favorite beverage on Feedback’s back deck. Or your favorite food – maybe the $5 lunch specials recently added Mondays through Friday, or the wildly popular Sunday Ribs, which “always sell out,” Jeff points out.
But before too much more looking ahead – there’s much for the two to look back on. Like, the celebrities who’ve been in: “Everybody from members of Heart, Soundgarden, Slayer, cast members from ‘Almost Live‘ – we’re hoping to host a reunion party here … We get all the radio bigwigs down here; we hosted a music-industry party here (recently) …” (Jeff added to the list in a note later: Members of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, The Wailers, The Sonics, Steppenwolf, Yes, and Rail.)
Though they agree the bar has become as much a neighborhood hangout as a rock ‘n’ roll destination, one huge point of pride is the rock memorabilia and art decking the Feedback Lounge walls, like the newly installed Rolling Stones display, so vast our photo can only capture part of it:
It’s in the “Rok Box” display area, culled from several notable collections (with more details here). On a nearby wall, there are long-locked-away photos of British Invasion bands including The Beatles, right next to this vintage poster for a concert by The Who:
Jeff (reflected in that shot, if you look closely) says he’s always on the lookout for new items to display – that one, he found in Japan.
Turn around from that wall and walk across to the other side of the lounge, and you’ll find yet another display featuring stacks of ticket stubs from rock concerts – saved up by Jeff, perhaps knowing someday he’d have someplace to display them. You could spend an hour in the Feedback just wandering around checking out what’s on the walls and the shelves, all the way up to a row of old-school portable radios just past the west end of the bar.
“We were called Seattle’s answer to the Hard Rock Café (before one opened here), but our rock memorabilia was obtained by being fans,” Jeff points out, mentioning that displays are in the works featuring Heart, Led Zeppelin, Northwest rock. “People love to look at this stuff.”
Along with drinks, food and art in their repertoire, they have become a popular venue for fundraising events. Earlier this month, they hosted an auction that raised more than $1,300 for Animals First Foundation. Animal-related charities are close to Matt’s heart, he says, while Jeff says, “For me, it’s the West Seattle Food Bank – we raised a lot of money for them over the past year.” That included the proceeds from “We Are The Junction,” a Christmas compilation by local musicians; the Feedback crew not only helped hatch the idea, they hosted the CD release party.
“A highlight for me (of Year 1) has been, being able to come up with an idea for a promotion or event or party and implement it instantly,” says Jeff. “We don’t have to go through a whole process, and we can just morph this place into anything we want, like the Rat City Rollergirls (Halloween) party last year.” The partial wall in the middle of the space enables the Feedback to host parties and other events in the back area while the regular ebb-and-flow bar/restaurant crowd carries on in the front.
Ebb-and-flow can be a little unsettling at times, they say as the second year begins. “The hardest part is when you walk in here (early) and there’s nobody here for hours (sometimes), but that’s the ebb and flow of local community business, it’s not like downtown. Here it’s like the luck of the draw.”
Matt picks it up: “11:30 on a Monday morning, takes people a few hours to start showing up, but that’s just the bar business, something I had to get used to … The first year, I’ve worried much more than I thought I would, but I’m starting to come out of it!” At that, Jeff laughs. But seriously, they affirm, the relatively recent decision to start opening daily at 11:30 am “was a roll of the dice … a lot of people don’t work in West Seattle and it’s hard to get people in here (on weekdays),” but “lunches have been going better as time goes by.”
And some West Seattleites are just now discovering them, as are visitors from elsewhere. Matt mentions “people from downtown saying I wish I could cut and paste this bar into my neighborhood.”
But first and foremost, Jeff says, it’s a West Seattle business. “It’s fun (to be in business here) because our businesses are very unique to West Seattle – West 5, Easy Street – the best record store in the state of Washington … West Seattle takes care of its own.”
So is Feedback Lounge on its way to West Seattle icon status? One hint may be in the popularity of its sweatshirts: “They’re not Easy Street (popularity) level yet, but getting there!” Here’s the image from the Feedback website:
Apparel attributes aside, Jeff says: “We’re lucky to have the customers that we do – very supportive, of us, the food, the drinks, the charity stuff (we do) … That’s West Seattle for you. This is the best community going.” He pauses briefly, then adds: “Take that, Ballard! … We’re always pushing West Seattle pride.”
They make sure at several points during our conversation to also mention how proud they are of their staff, many of whom, they say, are still with them after the first year, despite the lessons and changes.
And for half this partnership, a personal change is impending too – it’s noted that Matt’s wife is also at the Feedback during our conversation, and that she’s due with their first baby in less than two weeks.
Jeff still has a side job, which he admits makes things “at times inhumanly tough,” but he insists, with his seldom-out-of-sight smile, “My life is NOT boring!”
As for the lessons of Year 1 – besides what’s on the Feedback website – Jeff says, “There’s something new that always goes really wrong or really right every day. You just don’t know what you’re going to get.” However – “If I was going to give advice to anybody, I’d say: Resist the temptation to walk on a freshly mopped floor.”
Take that literally or metaphorically? Go visit the Feedback Lounge and figure it out for yourself. (Today they’re planning to celebrate with cake and balloons.)