Terry Barbu is reclined on a patio chair outside Liquid, his first club in downtown Cleveland's Warehouse District.
Here are the spots in Cleveland's Historic Warehouse District
Terry Barbu owns through his company Liquid Living LLC,
or was a partner.
1995: Liquid CafÃ©
1997: Spy Bar*
1999: Sushi Rock*
1999: Funky Buddha
2005: Tequila Ranch/Killer Burrito
It's a balmy late September afternoon and Barbu is dressed in a stylish blue polo, cargo shorts, and leather sandals. Although he'll turn 40 in June, he looks more like one of the 22- to 29-year-old patrons who frequent his bars rather than the man who almost single-handedly created the city's most thriving entertainment district since the East Bank of the Flats.
But Barbu is already looking toward the warmer months of 2005. Thousands of young professionals and college students home for the summer will crowd his establishments along West Sixth and West Ninth Streets such as Liquid, Fusion, Tramp, Funky Buddha, and his newest venture, Tequila Ranch, a roadhouse-style saloon replete with a mechanical bull and Mexican food stand Killer Burrito, which opened in March.
"I did Tequila Ranch and Killer Burrito more as a defensive move than an offensive move because I wanted to make sure that the street stays quality and moving forward in a good direction," says Barbu. "I'm just doing my best to hang on as long as I possibly can, to keep the Warehouse District a good, clean, safe environment with quality establishments that pay attention to the customer, that aren't running around to make as much money as they possibly can, as quickly as they can."
In the bar business, 10 years can be a lifetime. But Barbu has grown his company that owns and manages his 10 bars, nightclubs and restaurants, Liquid Living LLC, to $10 million in revenue with 350 employees through consistent reinvestment and reinvention.
Barbu estimates that he has spent $4.4 million in the last 10 years on new clubs, redesigns and improvements, sometimes relaunching a club under a new name and look. He leases commercial space in the neighborhood as soon as it is available, and had a record of opening at least one new storefront every six months for six years. All so he can control the quality of the establishment in the Warehouse District and have some influence over the fate of the neighborhood. His greatest fear is that the Warehouse District – where most of his establishments are – will meet the same fate as the nearly shuttered East Bank of the Flats.
"My fear is someone is going to buy one of these clubs or somebody is going to get involved that doesn't know the business and boom, I could risk losing everything down here," Barbu says. "A lot of times, the club starts to die out and instead of [the club owner] reinvesting the money and remodeling the place, and coming up with a new name and coming up with a new theme, they simply start going after a worse and worse crowd."
More than just Barbu's bars and clubs rides on the success of the Warehouse District, which runs from West Third Street to the east, Front Avenue to the north, West 10th Street to the west and Superior Avenue to the south. In 2004, there were 1,469 upscale apartment units and 189 condominiums in the neighborhood, compared to only 68 total apartment units 10 years earlier, according to the city of Cleveland. The number of condominiums is expected to increase to 262 by the end of this year.
Thanks to the population growth, a 9,600-square-foot grocery store, Constantino's, opened last year in the Bingham Building on West Ninth Street.
The Warehouse District has emerged as not only a popular place to eat and drink, but also the most sought-after neighborhood to live in downtown Cleveland.
"Looking forward, the Warehouse District has more of the potential housing locations," says Robert Simons, professor in the Department of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. "Those households will provide for the dinner trade down there. The yuppies that live there do a lot of eating out."
Born and raised in Avon Lake, Barbu moved to Denver after high school to study finance in college, but ended up working at nightclubs. He spent eight years in Denver before returning home to try his hand at the Cleveland bar business.
He tended bar at Shooters on the Water, a popular bar on the West Bank of the Flats, and in 1990 began working at another nightclub on the West Bank called Metropolis. Two years later, he was reportedly fired for telling the club owner how to run the business. But only a year after that he was asked to run the club by one of its investors, Joseph Phillips, who later became one of Barbu's business partners. In 1993, Barbu redesigned the club, divided it into three sections and named it Trilogy.
"I worked in this market for four or five years and I developed a clientele and customer base from my Metro-polis/Trilogy days and I was able to get a kick-start over [at Liquid]," Barbu says. "If you don't come off with a little bit of a kick-start when you first open, it's very difficult to come back up."
In 1995, armed only with a high school diploma and no formal business training, 29-year-old Barbu launched Liquid on West Sixth, amidst abandoned warehouses, mills and shops, just up the hill from the then-bustling Flats.
"I knew this could be a great area," he says. "It had a good feeling as far as the design of the buildings and the way that it looked, and I really thought that this could be a good space."
In the early months, Barbu remembers sitting on cinderblocks outside Liquid watching groups of people walking toward his door on West Sixth Street. At first, it was just the familiar faces from Trilogy, but after a couple weekends, the crowds grew.
"I was just walking across the street last weekend and there was 3,000 people on the street now and that's exciting to know that I had a lot to do with creating this," Barbu says.
What separated Liquid from most of the bars in the Flats was the design. It wasn't a dance club, but it also wasn't a smoky shot-and-a-beer joint. Exciting, but intimate. Hip, but not garish. Sophisticated, but unpretentious. Barbu designed Liquid with plush couches, a fireplace, and raised tables in a long, narrow space to ensure close proximity of its patrons.
"What I tried to create was a boutique bar," Barbu says. "A boutique bar is better designed, it's clean and upscale, the couches ... It was different and unique. Plus, you have the lake right there, and the city was reviving at that time in the late 1990s."
Two years later, Barbu helped open Spy Bar, also on West Sixth, and then Wish, another nightclub, further down the street.
In 1998, Barbu met Michael Schwartz, a Mayfield Heights native and former PriceWaterhouseCoopers CPA who had just purchased a struggling restaurant in Atlanta. Schwartz was impressed with Barbu's clubs and asked him to transform the restaurant into a nightclub. Barbu agreed and the two flew to Atlanta. On the two-hour plane ride, they became fast friends and have been business partners ever since.
"He had been out in Denver and skied a lot of the same places that I had," says Schwartz, 38. "And we were both from Cleveland and had young daughters, so we had a lot of similar life experiences."
Coincidentally, Barbu's business partner at the time, Phillips, was looking to exit. "It was a perfect fit," Schwartz says. "He needed a financial guy, and I needed someone with bar and restaurant experience."
While Schwartz was buying out Phillip's interest in Liquid Living, he negotiated the lease for the space next to Liquid, which would become Fusion in spring of 2000.
"I knew financially by running the numbers if we could get that space, the business would be a lot more valuable," Schwartz says.
As Schwartz closed the deal on Fusion in 1999, Barbu's most thriving Warehouse District dance club, Funky Buddha, launched on West Ninth Street. The nightclub not only attracted the region's young adults, but also piqued the interest of investors.
"On Friday and Saturday night there were lines 200 deep down West Ninth," Schwartz says. "That made things easier for us."
While the Warehouse District thrived, business in the East Bank of the Flats was rapidly dropping in the late 1990s due to increasing violence and lack of unity among the area's numerous club and bar owners. The strip's demise was a story that was becoming familiar to Barbu and Schwartz.
Apart from the Cleveland bars, the duo own a trendy nightclub in Atlanta, Eleven50, not far from their former club, The Living Room, in the city's Buckhead Village entertainment district. Buckhead ended up suffering the same fate as the Flats, only on a larger, more violent scale.
After a string of shootings and violence in or near nightclubs in the neighborhood, on Super Bowl weekend 2000, two Akron men were stabbed to death outside a club following a party. The incident received national attention when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was implicated, but later absolved of any violent charges.
"You could've closed me down that weekend," Barbu says. "I went from making 20 to 30 percent in profit to losing 20 to 30 percent in two weekends."
Many residents and businesses blamed Buckhead bar and club owners for encouraging the violence by lack of security and drinking age enforcement and throwing special 18 and older nights where teenagers could attend dance clubs where alcohol was served. The same criticisms were leveled against East Bank proprietors during its demise.
The problem started with a few bar owners whose profits were slipping, so they slashed their prices on alcoholic drinks, Schwartz says of Buckhead. "They started to cater to troublemakers, and once they started doing that, people started getting killed, and people stopped going there," he says.
Barbu is determined to prevent what happened in the Flats and Buckhead from happening in the Warehouse District. He's petitioned his city councilman to enforce noise ordinances and asked police to discourage loiterers and cruising on West Sixth and West Ninth Streets. He's urging his fellow bar and club owners to restrict their establishments to 21 and older only – every night.
"Ultimately, [the Warehouse District] can last for 20 or 30 years no problem," Barbu says. "But it's not going to last if we let it go down hill. If you are uncomfortable in this area, if you feel unsafe, if you aren't having a good time, or if you are getting hassled, you're going to leave."
After Sept. 11, entertainment venues in the Warehouse District suffered. Barbu and Schwartz worked on expanding a sports bar/restaurant concept they had on Prospect Avenue downtown, The Boneyard, to Broadview Heights.
"No one really felt like dancing at that time," Schwartz says. "It took about a year after September 11 before the economy came back, Liquid came back and the Browns came back – which really helped the Warehouse District."
In 2003, Barbu shut down half of Funky Buddha to open Tramp nightclub, the scene of the now infamous tussle between then-Cleveland Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia's girlfriend Carmella DeCesare and Garcia's former girlfriend.
"Funky Buddha was still making money, it was still very profitable, but I just felt that, in order to stay on top of the game, you have to remodel and make things fresh," Barbu says.
"Together, we've been financially smart in how we operate our facilities as far as putting money aside to do remodeling, not spending every penny, and financing them in a manner that makes sense," Schwartz says.
Barbu's latest creation is Tequila Ranch/Killer Burrito, a saloon concept he picked up, like many of his bar ideas, from traveling the country with his wife, Laura. Tequila Ranch came from a bar in Los Angeles he had seen on his honeymoon called Saddle Ranch. "Tequila Ranch looks nothing like Saddle Ranch," Barbu says. "But it has the same vibe."
"As a designer, it's my job to go out and spend time and look at hundreds of concepts and hundreds of designs and to pull things I like," Barbu says in late February, just weeks away from his new bar's grand opening.
Located across the street from Liquid on West Sixth Street, Tequila Ranch/Killer Burrito will entice patrons with 50 different kinds of tequila and a 40-foot bar, where a live band can perform on a stage above it. The mechanical bull will be a big draw, he says.
Killer Burrito, which is also a new concept Barbu is bringing to one of his establishments, offers oversized burritos in a style made popular by the McDonald's Corp.-owned fast-food chain Chipotle.
"We didn't want to compete against ourselves, so we wanted to do something different," Schwartz says. "I had always wanted to have live bands, and Terry had this Tequila Ranch idea in his head."
Barbu, who wants to expand the Killer Burrito concept throughout the region, got the idea in Atlanta, where "if you drive two minutes you'll pass seven different burrito places," he says.
Barbu anticipates he will stay in the bar and nightclub business for five to 10 years, and then start a consulting practice focusing on nightclub design and operations. But Barbu's not one to sit still for long. If there's activity in the Warehouse District, you can bet he's involved.
"As soon as the space becomes available I'm going after it, and go after it hard," he says. "Some of the people who are trying to lease space here are getting mad at me because I'm not going to lose the space. It's just the way it's going to be. I'm doing it for the safety of my bars and for the safety and direction of the street."