It's hard to believe that just over a year ago we were wondering if The Wayfarer was ever going to be able to fill the shoes of its beloved predecessor, Detroit Bar. Or worse, were they going to do away with the old pair of shoes altogether and come up with a totally new concept (remember when the rumor of it becoming a gastropub drew a collective gasp from the locals?). But one of the best decisions that new owner Jeff Chon could've made for the Costa Mesa venue was to pair one old shoe with one new shoe and rocking them together to create a its own hybrid style. It sounds crazier than it actually is.
Since opening in July of 2014, the Wayfarer has successfully started creating its own niche by splitting its clientele into two parts: the happy hour crowd and the live music crowd. A dual focus on quality bites and popular local bands at different times of the day helps build a clientele that can be at the venue regardless of who is playing that night. And for Chon, it's helped build the natural crowd for their new brand and hopefully ensure that the bar will be around to see another anniversary. We spoke with Chon recently about what he's learned about building his business at the Wayfarer one year after re-opening the venue's doors.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): Coming from a restaurant background, what are some areas where you feel like you've made Wayfarer a success as a live venue for local bands?
Jeff Chon: A lot of it is about learning how to infuse that bar and restaurant element with the live music scene. I came in here with some prior bar and restaurant knowledge. I had to learn which kind of music works with different nights and what kind of environment is gonna translate into people having a good time and want to drink and eat as well. There's nothing wrong showcasing just music, but a lot of our bands, we charge a minimal cover, or in some cases no cover. That's not generating revenue. So from a business aspect, it was hard to stay true to what Detroit's legacy was but still make it a profitable business. I like having the same staff in place, like a family. Just as the musicians are family. That's one really cool thing that I saw–bands who might not have drawn any crowd before and over the course of this year after utilizing those same bands over and over again, we can take care of them better and pay them more because they've developed along with us.
Any examples of bands that come to mind?
Reggae Tuesdays were not busy when we first started and now it's got a great crowd every week. The Gromble have a cover band called Sega Genocide which we've used multiple times and time we use them, we just get busier and businer on those nights. We got a lot of local bands who hang out here all the time too: Big Monsta, Robert Jon and the Wreck, Randsburg, Gardener's Logic. All these guys are really the definition of Orange County local music. So it's great to see them flourish with us and being able to put on bigger bills. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we were immature as a venue, we needed to develop our clientele, people who come in just to hang out at the Wayfarer. So what's cool is that the band can build on their fan base by using our regular crowd as well.
What are some ideas you came in with when rebranding the club and how did those ideas change after you opened?
Our food program was definitely one big part. I was really confused on what direction I wanted to go in at first. Do we make it restaurant-centric where people just come in for food? That was a thought in the beginning, but then I decided why not just make really good food, not a huge menu, just nice and simple. But it's something where people can come in for happy hour at five or six, grab some beers, play some pool, and have a bite to eat, play some games and then in late night just primarily focus on the music. It was hard for me to break those two things down. We evolved into that. Before, I thought 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. should look the same in terms of what we do. But it's really not, it's a totally different dynamic. At 5p.m. you get a lot of guys from Action Sports and Hurley, who've been really supportive since the beginning and they're a big happy hour crowd. They're not necessarily interested in who's playing that night. On the other hand, the guy who came in at 9p.m., I can't really sell him much food because he came in having eaten dinner, he's here to see the music. So recognizing that was difficult, but I think we're getting better and better at it.
How about the sound system here, what adjustments did you have to make?
We thought when we opened up that we had sound dialed in, and we realized we needed more and we needed to push harder to get better sound in here. We were blessed to have QSC come in and be a sponsor for our venue so all of our equipment is QSC and they are our primary sponsor and they dialed in this room so we have all the headroom we need with the PA system.
What are some things you'd like to do with this place in the future in terms of development?
Eric Keilman has really flourished as a talent buyer. He's put a lot of time and energy into becoming a better booker, understanding our venue and our vibe and I'm looking forward to the stuff he's got in store for the coming year. From the bar/restaurant standpoint, we do new stuff every day; new specials, new drinks, new craft cocktails. The key for me and my staff is not to get complacent. We want to get better and be a place that everyone wants to come to all the time, regardless of what's going on.
How did your One Year Anniversary party go last month?
It was good, but there was one hiccup that night. That weekend, we were supposed to have Grand Master Flash performing, but he gave us notice 10 days prior to the event that he had to cancel. He gave us a shout out and a personal message on his instagram, we rescheduled to October 10. So we had to come up with a new show last minute. But we had a great band, The Joshua Payne Orchestra, and they played some hip-hop style jazz and we had a DJ come spin. But we really saw more of that crowd that I was describing earlier, the people who just wanted to be here. They weren't necessarily here just for the band or the DJ, they really were here to celebrate how much they liked this bar. And we were packed.