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VOL. 37 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 15, 2013

David Taylor: Catering to Nashville’s GLBT community with restaurant, clubs patrons ‘wouldn’t mind bringing their mother to’

By Joe Morris

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Visitors to Tribe, Play Dance Bar or Suzy Wong’s House of Yum, a triad of GLBT-owned and operated venues in the 1500 block of Church Street in the shadow of Downtown Nashville, see well-run, crowded operations that patrons “wouldn’t mind bringing their mother to,” co-owner David Taylor says.

Twelve years after opening, that’s still the goal, and along the way Taylor, 49, has become an increasingly visible spokesperson for the Church Street corridor, and Nashville’s Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual and Transgender business community in general.

Back to the beginning: It wasn’t easy to take an old Rent-A-Center and turn it into a gay mecca. But somebody had to do it, and with a background in health care software, higher education management consulting and no real experience to speak of in restaurant and nightclub operation, why not Taylor?

“I loved what I was doing, working with schools ranging from DePaul University to smaller schools like Pomona College and Catawba Colllege, but it was travel every week, and you can’t really connect to your community when you are on the road like that,” he says. “After 10 years it had gotten old, so we decided to do something different and open Tribe.”

The “we” in this equation includes business partner Keith Blaydes, formerly a textile purchaser for Vanity Fair Brands, as well as life partner Michael Ward of Allard Ward Architects, who oversaw the space’s conversion from empty shell to upscale bar.

Within a couple of years, Todd Roman and Joe Brown, who had helmed The Connection Nashville, were added to the partnership roster.

With the advent of Tribe, the stretch of Church Street from the I-65 overpass to the east down to the U.S. Post Office heading west furthered its reputation as Nashville’s “Gay District.”

In addition to Tribe, its restaurant space that would eventually become Suzy Wong’s and the next-door spot that would morph into Play, down the road were longtime anchors such as the World’s End nightclub, and OutLoud! Bookstore, both of which had been operating successfully for upwards of 20 years at the time. And in 2008, OutCentral Cultural and Community Center opened its doors on that block as well.

‘Know who your customers are’

Taylor, who was born in north Georgia and relocated with his family to Murfreesboro when he was 9, says that Tribe’s ownership team wanted to be more than just another bar on the block.

“We thought it would be a good place to base the business. Of course, there were a lot of unknowns, but we tried to bake as much of that into the business plan as possible,” he says.

All in the family

Those who know David Taylor point to his parents, Larry and Betty Jane, as role models who have helped him succeed. He concurs.

“My dad has always been a little competitive, and wants to have a good time doing what he is doing,” he says of his father, who played for the Nashville Vols baseball team and coached multiple sports at Berry College in Georgia. “So he taught me about not only having passion but also about doing your best and having a good time.”

His mother worked for several years in the placement office of the Vanderbilt Owen Center Graduate School for Management, holds a master’s degree from Peabody College and taught elementary school.

“She was a teacher who always wanted to learn new things,” he says. “She was a Girl Scout leader (for his sister, Stella), always the one to coordinate things and lead the troop. I think I got a pretty good balance of both of them.”

“With something like this you have to take care of the financial piece and be well capitalized, but beyond that know who your customers are, and what your reach is. There are a lot of failed bars, because people try to copy something else that has been successful or they just don’t know their niche as well as they think they do.

“There was an emotional piece to the plan, because you’ve done a lot of research and put a lot of money into it,” Taylor continues.

“It’s a risky proposition: If you lose it all, could you live with that? If the answer is yes, you work hard to minimize that risk, then put out your money and make your bet. We wanted to build something our community could be proud of, and so we were willing to take that chance.”

The setup for Tribe was simple: It would be a high-end venue with quality furnishings and electronics. The target customer was the Nashville GLBT community, obviously, but the club’s mantra from the get-go was to be inclusive of any and all Nashvillians, and that’s what drove its founders.

“It’s the classic case of the fellow who started The Gap,” Taylor says. “He wanted jeans that fit him, and couldn’t find any. So he went out and opened a store that had every size available all the time.

“That was the same for us. We wanted a place where people could go, a place that would be competitive with all the other bars and clubs in town, but also be a place ‘nice enough to bring your Mama, but probably never would.’ We used to actually use that as our tagline. We wanted to bring the nightlife level up to a place that people could show off and be proud of.”

A changing city

He says this in no way to disparage earlier and still-existing clubs at the time, but more as an indicator of the city’s growing diversity.

Taylor and partners Keith Blaydes, Todd Roman and Joe Brown have transformed the aging block of Church Street between 15th and 16th avenues.

-- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger

“A lot of gay bars at the time were smoky and dark, and only known by the number on the door. They had no signage, which itself was a sign of what the times had been. That was changing when we opened, but we never could have done what we did without all of them paving the way for something more bold and open.”

That said, Tribe’s 75 feet of storefront is bookended by a back entrance off the rear alley, just in case a patron doesn’t want to be seen. But the vast majority of patrons hit the front door, and they come from all over.

“Our competition certainly is the other gay bars, but all the other clubs in town as well,” he says. “Times are changing; the nightlife scene in Nashville is really wonderful, and people go to pretty much whichever bar they like and feel comfortable.”

Even with the usual hiccups during the opening weeks, Tribe was an immediate success. Its attached restaurant, however, went through several different iterations as it tried to find its niche. While never a failure, it wasn’t performing as robustly as the club, so change was in order.

“It has been an excellent lesson for us,” Taylor says. “The restaurant was never the goal — we put it in because the liquor laws at the time required us to have 75 seats at tables and a full kitchen able to serve. It wasn’t a total afterthought, but it wasn’t the problem we were trying to solve for our community. It didn’t have the defined vision that the other side did, and we’re not restaurateurs.

“Partnering with Arnold [Myint] was a nice lesson in what it means to have someone in the operation with the deep passion and skill to make it work.”

Myint, a native Nashvillian who followed his mother into the restauant business, has become a national foodie darling with his appearances on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.

“He created an amazing vibe with Suzy Wong’s, and it’s doing great,” Taylor adds. “You have to have that passion for every aspect of the business. If it’s not part of your core team, you have to find it and add it.”

Within two years Taylor and his partners opened Play, a late-night dance bar, next door to Tribe, and it has found success as well. So much so, in fact, that a second location soon will open in Louisville, Ky.

A changing Church Street

That’s been an exciting challenge, but Taylor says his eye is never too far from what’s happening outside his Nashville front door. These days, that means watching what’s happening in a corridor in flux.

The area two blocks west that currently houses three bars, a restaurant and the community center has been purchased by Dialysis Clinic Inc., which has built a facility on the north side of Church Street in the 1600 block and assembled two large parcels on the east side.

And even though there’s no activity now, a large, two-story complex, the West End Summit, is still on the books to house HCA’s Parallon Business Solutions and other businesses once it rises out of the giant pit at Broadway and the West End split.

“In Chicago or West Hollywood, you have a strong gay district because there’s also a residential component,” Taylor says. “Nashville doesn’t have that type of consolidation. Church Street is a great place, because it’s convenient to all sides of town, and that’s why we put Tribe where it is. And since we began there have been more added, so the area has really come back, but now there’s a lot of uncertainty because of the developments happening all around us.”

That said, he is quick to add: “Even if they tore down all these buildings, I think everyone would find a new spot. We need to be where the people are, but that can be done in a different place. I’d like to think that if we are well liked, the people who visit us now would come with us to a new location. I think we’re much more than just where we are located.”

The voice of the community

Successful business operators often become the voice of their industry, and that’s happened with Taylor.

He’s also become one of the more visible faces of the GLBT community thanks to the philanthropic efforts he and his partners support, as well as being willing to speak up in front of diverse audiences.

“Church Street and the local businesses along there are very valuable to our community, and thanks to people like David and his partners our community is able to reach way beyond that area,” says Lisa Howe, executive director of the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce.

“David’s leadership in the city is admirable. I recently went through a national emerging-leaders program, and when they brought in a panel on diversity – there he was, representing our community.”

That really “rung a bell” for her, she says, adding “He was not just representing the GLBT business community, but representing the city in terms of his leadership and his business success. He really is one of the ‘go to’ guys in our community, and someone who works with us at the chamber to give young professionals the benefit of his experience. That’s really valuable, and it’s just one of many things he has done to earn a lot of respect. His visibility helps drive a real cultural change here.”

Taylor’s business acumen has been invaluable in building the Tribe and Play brands, says Roman.

“When he and Keith were thinking about opening Tribe, they sought out advice from myself and from Joe Brown, my business partner,” he says. “It was their first foray into this kind of business, and we were happy to give advice. We really liked them from the first, and even though we were working for a competitor we kept a friendship. Eventually, we came over and helped to start Play.”

The partnership between the four principals has worked, Roman says, because each brings a unique skill set to the table. With Taylor, it’s the ability to strategize and think ahead.

“First of all, David is incredibly brilliant,” Roman says. “He brings a lot of experience with different kinds of organizations to the table, and he is a tireless worker. Add to that his community interactions and involvement, and it’s easy to see how that has all played a big part in the success of our business.”

These days at Tribe, it’s all about keeping things fresh. That can mean anything from a new coat of paint to an early-hours drag show, and just about everything in between.

“We’re very grateful for the success that Tribe has had, and the key to us being around as long as we have is that we keep it fresh and clean,” he says. “People who come in for the first time are shocked that we are 12 years old. Our customers take care of it, which means a lot.”

That means longevity for all parties involved, he hopes.

“I thought I’d get it going and then find something else to do,” Taylor says. “But it’s really all consuming. It’s fun, and the time has gone by very quickly, which is the best sign that you are doing something you really enjoy doing.”

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