Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Phillips decided to make Colorado Springs his home after 14 years of service in the Army. Phillips is the owner of 3E’s Comedy Club, Colorado Springs’ newest comedy venue, located in Bancorp Plaza on Nevada Avenue.
After his military career, which included deployments to the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo, Phillips worked as a property manager before going back to work for the federal government, first with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and then with the U.S. Small Business Administration. Comedy has always been a passion for Phillips, who promoted comedy events in the ’90s and began building relationships with comedians and learning the basics of the industry.
Starting a comedy club was always part of Phillips’ plan after leaving the Army, but he was waiting for the right time and location. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came to Colorado shortly after Phillips secured his perfect spot. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on entertainment venues across the country, forcing bars, nightclubs and concert halls to either close their doors permanently or drastically scale back business. Some venues are trying to weather the storm, but many have closed their doors for good. Opening a new venue during this crisis poses unique challenges to entrepreneurs like Phillips.
Why did you decide to open a comedy club, and what has that process been like?
This was a dream I’ve had since I first got back here, I wanted to open a comedy club but it wasn’t the right time, wasn’t the right location. Then this location came and it was great. I put the work in and redesigned the place and then COVID came.
I served on the Colorado Springs Planning Commission for six years, so I saw the city growing, and then Mayor [John] Suthers came in and he had the same attitude about growth. I said, ‘This is going to be a great time to do this, but it has to be downtown.’ Most cities have a comedy club downtown and they have another one in another area that’s in a shopping center. Our two malls don’t do much, so downtown is where I wanted to be. I kept looking down here and I came across a great place and that’s where we’re opening up.
I did a stint in property management and I knew some real estate people. Relationships mean a lot in this city, and I’ve met a lot of good people. Just knowing people and treating people right has helped me out a lot. I know a lot of restaurant people, we’re going to have a Heckler’s Café. A lot of the people in the restaurant community helped me out and gave me some tips and helped me get through that part. I’m not a restaurant guy, I’m a comedy guy, so I had to get some advice from some knowledgeable people.
How has COVID-19 affected your plans?
We signed the lease in February, and that is just when things went bonkers. We had three months that we could work without paying rent, but after that I had to pay rent and we weren’t open yet. It’s been a challenge trying to get things done and figure out the seating. We can hold about 350 [people], so we had to break that down and measure our seating and make sure everybody is 6 feet apart and put things into place. We’re going to have UV-ray lights that kill germs. We’ve got fogger for after the show. We have a lot of things we probably wouldn’t have had to buy if not for COVID. Our goal is to make sure people feel safe coming into this establishment, and we’re going to do what we need to do to make that happen.
Unfortunately I can’t get a Small Business Administration loan because I work for the agency, so lending was rough. They were saying ‘We don’t want to invest money into an indoor venue. We don’t know how it’s going to go with COVID’ — things like that. ‘Well you have a restaurant, but is your comedy club a theater?’ They don’t really have a category for it because we’re not a theater, we’re a comedy club. A theater is big, so they said ‘You’ve got to seat people 25 feet from the stage’ and that’s impossible in a 5,000-[square-foot] comedy area. We’re working that out, and we might have to put up Plexiglas so we can seat people closer, but all those things are things we’re going to work with the city to figure out.
We’re going to open sometime after Labor Day. We had our first health inspection and now we need to get some food sampling going. We want to do this right; we don’t want to open up and we don’t have everything we need. Our liquor license is in place — everything is in place, so it’s just fine-tuning some things.
As a comedy club, how has COVID-19 affected the talent-procurement process?
We’re always looking for bigger names. Some of the people I’ve worked with and reached out to: David Shapiro and Sinbad, they’re not touring yet. Colorado Springs hasn’t been a main place to come for comedy. Loonees doesn’t bring in big names like that, they usually go up to Comedy Works in Denver. It’s going to be a different experience for big-name comedians. We’ve talked to Bill Burr, and we’re going to talk to everybody. I know a lot of big comedians and big names. We’re also going to work our local comedians. We’re going to have schools here, classes so they can come and learn and get better as up-and-coming comedians. It would be an opportunity for them to come in and write and we have some presenters ... who can come in and teach them how to present themselves on the stage, different genres of comedy. We’ll have some improv, but we want them to learn and get better. What they do is an art, and you only get better by putting the work in to make sure that your jokes deliver well and that you’re doing the right comedy that fits you. We’ll be using some local comedians and watching them grow as they do that.
This industry — most people don’t know about it. It’s a different type of entertainment industry because you usually don’t have open mic nights and practice sessions for bands. You have a band that comes in and that’s what you have. What we’re doing here, training these comedians and growing our own Bill Burrs or Seinfields is going to be great. It’s going to be great not just for Colorado Springs but for Colorado.
Aside from traditional comedy programming, what else will 3E’s offer?
We’re going to do improv, and get with the improv community as well. We’re going to do a poetry night, and an open mic night. We’ll be open for lunch during the day; grab-and-go, we don’t want to do anything sit-down. That was the plan before COVID, to do a grab-and-go lunch because we’re around a lot of office space inside of a bank, which makes us unique as well. I don’t think there’s another comedy club that’s inside of a bank. We’ll have a happy hour. During the week we’ll be doing different things but during the weekend we’ll have our two shows. We’ll have comedy for kids and families; we’ve been talking to a local magician. We’ll have different things going on.
What challenges have you faced trying to open a business during COVID-19?
Finding someone to do the work is always a challenge — construction companies, electricians, engineers. I knew a great architect who helped me out a lot. It just was finding people who wanted to work, because before COVID the city was kicking butt, and so everybody would overcharge you, which was interesting. You really had to weed those people out and do your homework. Fortunately, I had good people who owned restaurants and cafés who gave me ideas and helped me out. It was always a challenge trying to find out, ‘Is this number correct?’ or if they’re trying to get over on you. Finding the location downtown was tough, but when I found it, it was the perfect place. It’s been a challenge trying to juggle all that.
What will 3E’s add to the local job market?
Before COVID, we would have had about 15 to 20 employees, but we’re going to have to narrow that down because of capacity. When this is over, we’re going to grow. We were going to have a van that goes to Powers [Boulevard] and brings people down for shows. We still have a lot of plans, so we’ll be employing more people as we go along. There’s no other place like this downtown and I think with the tourists coming in and the people who live here, there’s no doubt we’re going to do well in the city. We just started our process of hiring. We have the main people put in place: general manager, cook and head bartender. We’re getting the rest of the folks and building the team.