It’s easy to be an entrepreneur, isn’t it?
You come up with an idea; you get it funded; you share space with other entrepreneurs; you hang out with cool, successful people and do cool, successful things.
Hey, if Jessica Alba can do it, why not you?
If only it were that easy. As successful entrepreneurs know, hard work and perseverance trumps brilliance.
Earlier this week, I spent time with Johnny Nolan. Twenty years ago, Nolan was an energetic young server/bartender at the Ritz who quickly became a favorite among the regulars. He was quick and skillful, never forgot your name or favorite beverage and knew how to deal with drunken or disruptive patrons. Most importantly, he knew how to create a cheerful, welcoming atmosphere.
He rose quickly in the Concept Restaurants hierarchy. Dave Lux and Luke Travins showed their confidence by partnering with him in a new establishment, Southside Johnny’s.
Occupying a cavernous space in one of the former trolley barns on South Cascade, Johnny’s was an immediate success. Beloved Ritz bartender Cece Owens helped Nolan open the bar, which combined friendly service, low prices, an amiable clientele and great weekend bands to become a downtown favorite.
Nolan never seemed to leave, and no job was too small. He bussed tables, took out the trash, shoveled the sidewalks, tended bar, schmoozed the customers and loaded the dishwasher.
A few years later, he brought the same energy and focus to the historic Navajo Hogan on North Nevada Avenue.
Built as a roadhouse in the 1930s, the Hogan had been in decline since the 1950s. It had passed through many iterations; strip bar, biker bar, failed restaurant, failed restaurant, strip bar, biker bar, failed restaurant and closed. A kitchen fire nearly burned it to the ground 30 years ago, but the massive ceiling timbers of the sturdy old building refused to catch on fire.
And so it sat, unwanted and apparently unloved.
Others saw a ruined old hulk, a functionally obsolete structure in a marginal location. Nolan saw a building with beautiful bones and great street presence, located on a major arterial close to the North End, Patty Jewett and UCCS. He bought it for a song, did major renovations and once again Cece opened the bar. The customers poured in; the bands played; the servers smiled and Johnny took out the trash.
“You’re always going to have problems, so you make sure you have room in the budget.”
– Johnny Nolan
Somehow, Nolan seemed to give his full attention to both establishments. The regulars got older, the bands got younger and the restless, ever-inventive Nolan looked for new business opportunities.
A couple of years ago, he looked at a building on the slowly gentrifying West Colorado Avenue corridor. The price was too high, so he waited … and waited … and eventually bought the 1919 Firehouse at 815 W. Colorado Ave. for $375,000.
The plan: Convert it into a moderately upscale taproom/restaurant, one that would appeal to a younger demographic. The problem: Like the Hogan and Southside Johnny’s, the ancient building had to be completely renovated. The new name: N3 Taproom.
Nolan partnered with master-of-all-trades craftsman Dan Romano in the venture. The two of them head a small construction crew, thriftily undertaking a very large job.
“It’s great,” said Nolan, “I’m using muscles I haven’t used for years. Jackhammering, welding — I can’t weld like Dan, but I’ve learned enough to be dangerous.”
Romano and Nolan aren’t building cheaply — they’re building inexpensively.
“Look at this staircase,” said Nolan, “Dan designed it and fabricated it.”
The steel structure leads to an airy, light-filled second floor that will feature exposed brick, a communal table and a bar with 30 beers on tap.
“The first floor will have booths and a bar as well,” Nolan said. “We won’t have live music. Our price point will be higher than the Hogan, but lower than Blue Star. People don’t drink as much as they used to, so you have to make it on food.”
For a construction site, the property is amazingly tidy.
“We don’t even have a dumpster,” he said. “You go to other sites — they throw away two-by-fours. We re-use everything. See that door there? It’s not a functional door — we used it as a form along with another one to pour a concrete wall. Looks great, saves money.”
So when will the N3 Taproom open?
“I’m hoping February,” said Nolan. “We had a little setback when we had to rezone the building, and that triggered new code requirements. It cost us $40,000 to completely sprinkle [system] the building, but that’s OK. You’re always going to have problems, so you make sure you have room in the budget.”
“And don’t worry!” he said reassuringly. “Cece will open the place.”