Bar Chat: An Interview with Steve Jamrozy of Side Door Lounge
Steve Jamrozy, the creative force behind the Flatiron Café since its inception in 1995, has earned a reputation for doing things differently than pretty much everyone else out there. His unorthodox approach seems to me to be fueled by a refreshingly honest fascination with and zest for life, along with a determination to draw willing adventurers and/or the blithely unsuspecting into experiencing his version of it. Whatever it is that drives him, the results of his efforts have been successful enough to afford him the opportunity to finally do something he’s wanted to do for a very long time – open a bar. Not just any bar, though. A bar that doubles as a window into Steve’s world. Drinks that fascinate you. Visual cues that draw you in. An atmosphere that makes you feel comfortable and welcome, yet with an air of unpredictability about it.
In an unobtrusive, yet beguiling little building located at 3530 Leavenworth Street, Steve has created the Side Door Lounge. The building itself is easily missed if you’re not looking for it (not surprisingly, there is no front door), which is of course fits with the plan. Like the Flatiron Café, the Side Door is a paradox of bold understatement.
I had a chance recently to sit down for a conversation with Steve about his latest creation.
FSM: Tell me about your background?
SJ: I take pride in being from the South Omaha packing house district. There’s a little of that inside me. My father was a cattle driver in those yards. My parents were born here in Omaha, but all my grandparents were from Poland. Education wasn’t big, so I started at the age of 15 at the French Café. That was the beginning of my formal education in this field. Even at a young age, I got burned out a little bit so I worked in the Stockyards for a year. That was way too brutal after the restaurant business, so I went back into it.
I lived in Austin, Texas from ’78 to ’90. Staying in that field, I worked as a maître d’ at the Paggi House (an Austin institution – www.paggihouse.com) and I worked for caterers. That was a great learning experience because my boundaries were wide open. I was able to experience every area of the service industry, from working behind the bar to cooking over open pits out at Governor White’s place and LBJ’s ranch. Great experience. Fell in love with my wife on a trip back here. We became family teachers at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town and did that for over two years. Then we started to have kids and this new project came around, Boston Chicken which became Boston Market, and I was one of the first ones in. It was interesting. Everything was made fresh. Great education.
But I wasn’t a corporate person. I didn’t fit that mold at all. So then Jack Baker (Baker’s Supermarkets) took me under his wing and I was serving decaffeinated coffee to blue-haired poodle walkers at 5:30 in the morning. They’d ask for a ten percent discount on a twenty-five cent cup. I couldn’t do the math. “Let’s see, 25 cents, 10, uh, 2.5 cents, ah, whatever you want to put in the jar.” We looked at opening a chili restaurant, doing a variety of interesting chilis, and it was going to be small – a very casual thing. But it just didn’t happen. It’s like tornadoes touching the ground. Sometimes they’re ready to touch and then they just dissipate. That one didn’t quite touch. Then my grandmother died. She had this little old house in South Omaha that she willed to my brother and me. He bought me out for $20,000. That $20,000 went into the bank and that’s what started that crazy thing (the Flatiron Café).
FSM: Describe your philosophy behind the Side Door.
SJ: People have asked me, “How did you find this place?” Well, it really did find us. It‘s such a community project. Prior to this, being Benson & Williams Pharmacy, it was a hub for the community. It was an active scene. Then it had disappeared for so many years. So I guess we found each other to give each other new life. The direction was brought on by it. I followed its wave. Ultimately, my mind is about the music – I want to grow into that – and the craft (of creating cocktails). That is a new frontier and a great opportunity. We’re all embracing it and we can grow with it. This has to be an oasis and a think tank for whoever wants to really come out and express themselves.
FSM: So the Side Door is the result of two entities coming together that just needed to be together.
SJ: Absolutely! It’s a beautiful marriage. It’s a great romance and love affair, and I think it’s one of those things that can go on and get stronger and become a bit of an institution. I really believe that. But it has to take it at its pace. I can’t force anything. I can put a few players together, hang out, open and shut the door… people say it’s mine, but you know what? It’s not mine. I’ve given it to everybody who comes in. It’s yours. Make it yours. And I mean that. Not even on a business end. Where we hang out, where we work, where we live, who we live with, where we have our cocktails – these are important parts of socializing and solving problems. It’s where ideas are going to come about.
FSM: You purposely avoided predetermining what the Side Door was going to be?
SJ: There was a time when I agonized over it slightly, like “What is it?” But once that front was sealed in and the bathrooms were framed in, and I jumped off the fence, or the bridge as I call it, and put in acoustical panels, it was clear as a bell. All of the sudden it had identity. We’re going to be available – singer-songwriter, music, poetry, comedy – we had a poetry reading our first week. I love that!
FSM: What has the feedback been from your customers?
SJ: I am a stimulation junkie. It’s nice to get patronized, but the love note is what I’m all about. The love note charges me. Are you kidding? I’m coming in and they’re leaving us love notes and saying this and that. That is what it is all about. That’s romantic! Does it get any better than that?
Dan Crowell, cocktail enthusiast and self-avowed ‘spirits nerd’, is the Luxury Brands Specialist for Sterling Distributing Company in Omaha. He talks incessantly (even occasionally to other people) about the virtues of what he calls ‘investigative imbibement’. An eternally fascinated student of the distillers’ art, he encourages any like-minded individuals to engage him in spirited discussion at http://libationassociation.blogspot.com
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