Will SLO Brew's move be a 'huge loss' for music fans?

Singer-songwriter Tyrone Wells performs March 27 for a mixed-age crowd at SLO Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo.
Singer-songwriter Tyrone Wells performs March 27 for a mixed-age crowd at SLO Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

At SLO Brewing Co. in downtown San Luis Obispo, the show continues to go on — at least for the moment.

On Wednesday, the popular concert venue on Garden Street hosted Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, an electronic pop artist, at a sold-out all-ages show. Other shows were scheduled through the weekend.

But just a few hundred feet away, construction continues on a new SLO Brew location on Higuera Street, which owner Hamish Marshall expects to open in September.

The current venue is expected to close in early August to make way for the Garden Street Terraces project, 93,425 square feet of commercial, residential and hotel space.

Marshall, who owns both projects, has said the SLO Brew experience won’t change — it will continue to feature beer, music and food after it moves. (He owns SLO Brew with Rodney Cegelski, and the hotel project with a group of investors.) 

But Marshall will also have to ward off some residents’ worries that the move to Higuera Street signals the demise of one of downtown’s most prominent venues for live music.

After plans to downscale the new SLO Brew were announced in October, word spread quickly that there might soon be a void in the live music scene. Some local musicians quickly mourned the upcoming closure, with one calling the change “a huge loss for music makers and fans of music.”

Instead of its current two stories, with concerts held on the bottom floor and a restaurant upstairs, the new SLO Brew will combine all of the uses at ground level.

 “I’ve talked to a lot of friends and everybody is bummed, whether they play music or not,” said Atascadero resident Anton Kellner of Anton Kellner & The Lone Stars. “I was sort of in denial.”

But Marshall insists that’s not the case.

“I think our focus is to make everything equal, to make the beer and the food as good as the music has been in the last five to 10 years,” he said. 

Marshall said the new venue will still have live music acts on the ground floor — sharing space with the restaurant and bar — though the layout and the capacity have not yet been determined. 

Marshall said he’s also working on plans for another concert venue but declined to elaborate. In addition, he said he’s in negotiations with Eddy “Numbskull” Burgos, owner/founder of Numbskull Productions, “to head up the music for us going forward, whatever that looks like.” 

“We’re trying to expand the base of music instead of what has been the scuttlebutt around town of the music dying,” Marshall said.

In an email, Burgos said he’s grateful to have been able to bring music acts to SLO Brew, estimating that he’s booked more than 3,000 shows in nearly 20 years.

In the last decade, after former owners Todd and Korie Newman got involved, “the venue became a must stop on any touring band's itinerary, production quality increased, and the community embrace (became) warmer,” Burgos said.

“To have a spot that embraces both heralded national touring acts and local musicians with the same vigor is an anomaly in and out itself,” he added. “The absence of 250-plus diverse shows annually that appeal to all walks of life will have a seismic negative impact on the community. But our dedication and commitment to live music has never been stronger and we are working on other options to fill that void.”

A long history

SLO Brew has been at 1119 Garden St. since 1988 in the historic Union Hardware and Plumbing Co. building. Work is underway on Higuera Street to retrofit the historic Carissa building next door to Frog & Peach Pub.

Plans for the Carissa building have been scaled back from what Marshall and Todd Newman, who currently manages the music acts, envisioned a few years ago. 

Initially, the plan included three levels: a ground floor with a dining area and brewery, a second floor with an 800-square-foot stage for live entertainment and a banquet area, and a rooftop patio with a dining area and small bar. 

The city’s Planning Commission unanimously approved the move in July 2012, but it was appealed to the San Luis Obispo City Council, which approved the plan but limited the number of people that the venue could serve. The council cut the concert capacity to 473 from 600, and reduced the number of patrons in the restaurant and bar to 338 from 476.

The current SLO Brew concert venue, on the bottom floor on Garden Street, can fit 457 people (the restaurant upstairs has an occupancy limit of 98).

Then, in October 2014, Marshall said that he and Newman were parting ways, and that the original plan was cost prohibitive and would be scaled down. 

At the time, Marshall said the restaurant, bar and music would all be located on the first floor, with the second floor leased as commercial and residential space.

On Thursday, Marshall said the second floor would instead be divvied into four luxury hotel flats, ranging from 1,000 to 1,200 square feet, each with a rooftop deck. 

“Really we’re just trying to expand the SLO Brew experience,” he said. “They’ll be made available to tourists, to bands who are playing at SLO Brew. It gives people the ability to come into town, stay, and experience the music and beer; experience the town we live in.”

Marshall said he’s planning triple-pane windows and a special acoustical mat ceiling to prevent any sound transmission.

The restaurant, bar and music would share the 6,500-square-foot first floor. Marshall said he’s still waiting to get his capacity limits from the city, and will work on the layout over the next few months. 

Currently, concert goers watch shows in SLO Brew’s approximately 4,000-square-foot venue on the bottom floor of the Garden Street building. A restaurant and bar is located upstairs.

There might be the ability to separate the restaurant from the concert space, he said.

Construction plans still have to go back to the city’s planning division for review and determination if any additional review is needed by an advisory body or the council, Building and Safety Supervisor Rafael Cornejo said.

Newman said his company, Good Medicine Presents, and Numbskull Productions will continue to present musical events at SLO Brew through July.

“Good Medicine’s involvement in the new SLO Brew has not been addressed,” he said in an email, adding that he hopes to continue collaborating with Burgos, a mentor and close friend. 

“Music has always been a passion for my wife Korie and I,” Newman wrote. “It has been a tremendous honor to be a part of the SLO music culture, and we are committed to continuing to bring music to the area.”

Their company has hosted several events at the Fremont Theatre and the Alex Madonna Expo Center, and announced this week that it will bring Jeff Bridges & The Abiders back to the Fremont on April 17.

“In addition, we are currently working with several new venues and anticipate announcing events in the coming weeks,” he said.

Second location

Meanwhile, construction is expected to start in June on a related SLO Brew project — a 10,204-square-foot brewery, 1,170-square-foot tasting room and 600 square feet of outdoor seating near the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport

Marshall received approval from San Luis Obispo’s Architectural Review Commission in February for a new facility at 855 Aerovista Lane. It could open in January.

Marshall said he has a 35-barrel brewing system in the works and aims to produce up to 2,500 to 3,000 barrels by the end of next year and 5,000 barrels by the end of 2017. 

He’s working to get tap handles in local restaurants and bars and starting to produce bottles next year, which will be sold in local stores and supermarkets and eventually expand elsewhere in California.

Beer would be brewed both downtown and at the airport locations.

Marshall has said he’d like to have live music at that airport location as well, but to do so he’ll have to file an application for a zoning change. Right now, live music is not allowed in that area, said Doug Davidson, deputy director of development review.

Musicians worried

Marshall said the downtown SLO Brew will be closed for about three to four weeks this summer while it moves. 

Until then, acts will continue to be booked at the Garden Street venue. Marshall said he’ll release more details as his plans shape up. 

It was clear from several interviews this week that local musicians and fans will be closely watching those plans.

“When they originally talked about moving there, it was a big plan to make it almost a bigger, better music venue and it was really exciting,” said Seth Roberts of indie rock band Lakes, which is changing its name back to Eager Seas. “And then we started hearing that potentially the city isn’t going to allow this or it’s going to be harder for them to pull it off, just these different rumors.”

The last thing local musicians heard, Roberts said, was that the venue would still have live music but it would be more of a side stage like Creeky Tiki or Frog & Peach.

“I think there’s definitely a feeling of loss with most of the local music fans and musicians because from what we’ve heard it’s kind of like the end of that era,” Roberts said. “I think everyone is still hopeful of the music scene still thriving and doing well.”

He said it would be great if the new SLO Brew offers a venue similar to the same size as the current location.

“Our best local shows are always at SLO Brew; that’s where we want to play,” added Nick Zoppo of Heart to Heart, a punk rock alternative band based in Pismo Beach. “The thing about SLO Brew — it’s in downtown beautiful San Luis Obispo and it’s home. 

“I’ve been going there since I was 14 and I’m 27,” he added. “It just had a great feel. The sound there is great.”

Even if the scene does change, leaving a void, it will soon be filled, said Bruce Howard of Cambria-based Otter Productions Inc., who has produced shows at venues throughout the Central Coast, including a few at SLO Brew. 

“The difference between doing theater performing arts centers and outdoor (shows) and club shows is a huge difference,” Howard said, “and SLO Brew fills that club void in our market.”

Added Burgos: “The intimacy is unparalleled. To get up close and personal with high-caliber artists in such small friendly confines adds so much to the live music experience.”

But club venues come and go, Howard said, and someone else inevitably steps in to meet the demand. In addition, there are a variety of venues in the area: the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly, The Ranch in San Miguel, the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande, Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles and the Avila Beach Golf Resort, to name a few.

“I know people are looking around and kicking tires for new venues that they can do business at,” Howard said. “What (previous SLO Brew owner) Mike Hoffman and Todd and Korie did was show that a club can be viable. People are willing to go out to spend $20 to get in and buy a few beers and watch a show.”