Looking beyond the pandemic, a pair of music industry entrepreneurs target a new entertainment business with an old-school vibe.
When comparing industries disrupted by the pandemic, restaurants and live music are among the hardest hit. Knowing this, why would anyone want to open a combination restaurant and concert space at a time like this?
“The restaurant industry has been hit very, very hard by COVID-19 — no doubt about it,” says Thomas “Jock” Weaver, a partner in RockHouse Live, a burgeoning chain of restaurants/concert venues scheduled to launch its flagship location on Clearwater Beach in February. “That has frankly created opportunities for entry into markets.”
A former president of Hard Rock Café who also spent 12 years building live events company TBA Entertainment (which he later sold to industry heavyweight Irving Azoff for $6 million), Weaver sees those opportunities in both reduced rents/operating costs due to COVID-19's disruption of commercial real estate and in a pent-up demand for live experiences.
The RockHouse Live concept is the brainchild of Zach Bair — a music and tech-industry veteran who originally conceived of the restaurant back in 2006, after selling a prior company he founded to Dallas Mavericks owner and noted TV shark Mark Cuban. Bair currently lives in Memphis, Tenn., but is likely to soon move to the Clearwater area, where he’s currently staying in a hotel while the RockHouse Live is under construction.
“I used to go to a local place when I lived in Houston, Sherlock’s Pub,” Bair says. “They got the formula correct: local music every night, no cover charge, very service oriented waitstaff, really good food (including family recipes) and combining that with a live music experience.”
Bair opened the first iteration of RockHouse in Dallas in 2006, before relocating to Memphis, where he opened two more locations. Bair met Weaver in Memphis in 2017, with the pair initially bonding over equestrian activities. “I was shocked to learn what Jock had done with Hard Rock,” he says. “And then we hit it off and started working together with VNUE.”
New York City-based VNUE, publicly traded on the over the counter stock exchange, is a music-tech provider Bair founded. The company aims to upgrade the live music experience for artists and audiences alike through the use of new technologies. These include Soundstr, which deals with rights management and royalties for live performance (making it more cost effective for the venues while also ensuring artists get paid), and Set.fm, which will make concerts performed at RockHouse Live available for post-show download by the general public.
After working out the kinks at two locations in Memphis, what the restaurateurs call an incubation period, Bair and Weaver were ready to launch their flagship restaurant — but first they had to find the perfect spot. “You want a major market,” Weaver says. “An entertainment zone, a tourist destination, beachfront or waterfront properties. As we began to check those boxes, Zach called and said, ‘I think I found this place in Clearwater.’ The fun factor in Florida is at the top of everyone’s list.” Moving forward, the goal is to open more locations in tourist-heavy areas, and the pair is scouting locations everywhere from New York City to Australia.
'Things have changed, but we will get control of this pandemic. It will pass.' Thomas “Jock” Weaver, RockHouse Live
The chosen 4,500-square-foot location is nestled among notable Clearwater Beach hot spots like the Wyndham Grand, restaurant Pier 60 and the Grand Hyatt. After an initial investment of some $600,000 and months of renovations, Bair and Weaver hope to open by March. The Clearwater space is leased, but Bair and Weaver might buy some of the locations in the future.
The pair expect to hire between 30-50 employees before the grand opening, with Bair reporting they are having no issues filling open positions. “We’ve had a lot of folks reach out to us,” he says. “Fundamentally, a lot of things have changed, but it’s an opportunity for innovators to create new spaces in the market that will flourish in the face of adversity.”
As such, when RockHouse Live does open, it will do so at reduced capacity and in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Weaver and Bair expect those changes to be mostly temporary, though they are open to adapting to whatever new reality the pandemic eventually leaves in its wake. “Things have changed, but we will get control of this pandemic,” Weaver says. “It will pass.”