FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The late-night crowd still shows up at the Cellar, a nightclub on Lewers Street in Waikiki, despite the nearby construction of the Beach Walk project.
A Hot Spot Notes
The New Era
The Cellar Nightclub anticipates the spotlight's resurgence
After almost two years of construction, the Cellar Nightclub's Rich Groder can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"I'm already seeing my numbers starting to come back," he said during the first week of January. "It's not big, but for me, anything is noticeable."
Unlike most other establishments along Lewers Street that shut down for the duration or went out of business entirely when construction on the Waikiki Beach Walk project started in 2005, Groder and his partner, Heine Fountain, kept their doors open and braced themselves for the doldrums ahead.
Despite a lack of customers and the loss of a few employees, the Cellar has persevered throughout the area's face lift. And with the addition of new neighbors like the Yard House and Coconut Willy's, Groder is looking forward to the increased foot traffic that will soon appear on the sidewalk fronting his club in the Imperial Waikiki.
OPENED in 1979, the Cellar (or Jazz Cellar, as it was known back then) was long known as a venue for live music. Jimmy Borges would headline early, then make way for various rock bands that would play until the wee hours of the morning.
"In the late '80s we were named one of the top 50 rock clubs in the nation by Rolling Stone," said Groder. "We'd been doing the rock 'n' roll, two bands a night, for 15 years."
After joining the staff as a 22-year-old bouncer in 1982, Groder continued to learn about the nightclub industry by working in almost every position. He served as a bartender's assistant, bartender, bar manager and club manager before being promoted to general manager of the Cellar and its sister club, Cilly's, in the early '90s.
Over the next few years, he oversaw a couple of name changes (first to the Rock Cellar, then to the Cellar Nightclub in 1995) and went from working as an employee to becoming part-owner. When Cilly's was forced to shut down in 1994 after its liquor license was not renewed, he shifted all of his efforts to running the Cellar.
FOR MOST of the past decade, the Cellar has been a favorite among hip-hop fans, with turntables replacing the live bands that once performed there.
Local residents, tourists and off-duty military came together seven nights a week to dance, drink and mingle in Waikiki. But when the Beach Walk project was launched, everything changed.
"It's been like night and day, with our business going down about 60 percent," Groder said. "It's diminished the foot traffic ... and we went dark a few nights to save on labor and other expenses."
Luckily, only a handful of the Cellar's approximately 25 employees were forced to look elsewhere for employment. Most of the staff, including one bartender who has been at the Cellar since it opened in 1979 and a bouncer who has worked there since 1992, were able to get by on reduced hours and the belief that business would eventually pick up after construction was finished.
"I take pride in that because it shows we must be doing something right if our people are willing to stick with us through all of this," Groder said. "Every day, I'm more and more excited. ... I can visualize what it's going to be like, and we just need to be ready to handle that business."
He does not see the opening of new restaurants and retail businesses as direct competition; instead, Groder welcomes them and sees the Waikiki Beach Walk as an opportunity to make a few minor changes and attract an even more diverse clientele.
"We're going to be taking steps to create a different atmosphere," he said. "We've already changed our dress code ... (and) we're playing a lot more Top 40 and a lot less hip-hop.
"I think this is going to revitalize Lewers Street. ... We've always done good business here. And with this awesome location, there's no reason for that to not happen again."