“I got started in the 1980s,” says Ted Warner, 62, the former owner of Asheville clubs Gatsby’s, Be Here Now and as of last week, Broadway’s. But now, “I’m old,” he concedes. “I should have sold many years ago. I started to lose the fire in my belly, which you need in this business.”
Warner finalized the sale of his Lexington Ave. bar to husband and wife team Khio and Mindy Dinh of Morganton on Wednesday, June 17, after a serious heath scare cemented his decision to exit the industry. But although he’s divesting his involvement, Warner’s legacy in the local club scene remains significant.
“[In the late ’80s], there were only three places open after 6 o’clock at night in the club scene,” he says of downtown Asheville, recalling pedestrians’ nightly practice of walking on roads’ double yellow lines to avoid being mugged on the sidewalk. “The rest of the town was boarded up. It was quite a blight.”
In the decades since then, he’s watched downtown undergo a metamorphosis, and the businessman was anything but a bystander.
Warner’s first club, Gatsby’s, earned a cultlike following for bringing world-class blues musicians (and late-night shenanigans) downtown, and the concept was “an instant success.”
“When celebrities were in town, that’s where they’d come,” Warner boasts. Stars like Bill Murray, the cast of The Last of the Mohicans and Dan Ackroyd (who had a penchant for conga dancing) were all regular visitors of the venue until its closing in 1998.
“At Gatsby’s, I did a lot of experimenting. I brought in the first zydeco music in Asheville, the first Cajun, the first reggae bands,” he says. “We did every style of music, but blues was our big thing for five or six years.”
“But at the same time, I had Be Here Now,” he explains of the few overlapping years. Gatsby’s held 200 patrons inside and 500-600 outside. With a 550-person capacity, Be Here Now allowed for even bigger indoor events. “At the time, it was the largest live music venue in a 130-mile radius,” Warner recalls. “It’s hard to name somebody in the ’90s who we didn’t [book].”
In 1999, while Be Here Now remained a hub for downtown activity, Warner opened Broadway’s, saying he “wanted a small club.”
At that time, Lexington Ave. was still dangerous, he says. Broadway’s landlord John Lantzius, who shared a vision to make the block thrive, asked Warner to be “the enforcer” and clean up the street. “He gave me carte blanche over his properties down here, and before he would rent a building, he would come to me and ask me what I thought of the people,” Warner says.
Eventually, the city opted to sell the Biltmore Avenue building that housed Be Here Now. Around the same time, the warehouse that would become The Orange Peel was up for renovations by public interest projects, and Warner, sensing impending competition, closed the club in 2000 to focus on Broadway’s. “It was exactly what I wanted, and I needed to slow down,” he says. “It was the smartest thing I ever did.”
Pioneering the pint
“Along the way, we made incredible advances in the bar scene in Asheville — little things that people don’t even think about,” Warner says. The bulk of experimentation took place during Gatsby’s heyday, he says, but its results can still be felt — or drunk, more likely — at present.
Warner claims his team introduced 16-ounce pint glasses (instead of the typical 10-ounce pours) to Western North Carolina bars in the late ’80s, borrowing the serving tradition from steel-bellied Europeans. He had to ask then-restaurant supplier Asheville Showcase to increase its inventory from two “mixing glasses” to 800 to fulfill the initial order.
“Everybody thought it was the weirdest thing,” he says, but “in a matter of about six months, we became the largest outlet for Budweiser and Bud Light on draft west of Charlotte [in North Carolina]. I got a letter from August Busch III congratulating me on the sales.” The change attracted a higher number of customers instead of simply increasing each patron’s consumption.
Warner also recalls having three beers on draft as being a major accomplishment for local watering holes of the past. He notes: “We put in six taps at Gatsby’s, which was incredible, and then when I bought Be Here Now, we put in 17.”
“We had the first widescreen TV at Gatsby’s,” he continues, recalling the $6,000 price tag for a 45-inch television. “We started showing Monday night football, and the place was packed … from one TV.”
Today, Warner says Broadway’s attracts a mix of downtown workers and hungry visitors. Some stop in for the eclectic programming and others in appreciation of the bar’s adherence to the Sam Walton theory: sell a lot for a little.
Warner’s most loyal customers — some of whom “go back to day one at Gatsby’s” — are the heart of Broadway’s, he’ll tell you. Their dedication is matched only by that of the bar’s current staff of eight. The longest-term employee has worked for Warner for about 24 years, and the newest hire clocks in with six years of service.
“We have virtually no turnover,” he says, so one of the terms of his selling to the Dinhs was the couple’s respect for staff tenure. “I consider each and every one of them a family member, so it was a selective process getting a new owner.”
For now, Broadway’s remains largely unchanged, but the Dihns plan to transition into selling their authentic Vietnamese fare in the coming months. The addition of their “awesome” dishes, Warner says, will be the most noticeable change.
“I’d been offered more money for the club,” he says. “This would have been a corporate restaurant if I had just been in it for the money, [but] people are more important to me than making a few extra dollars. … [The Dihns] want to keep the club atmosphere the same.”
Although bittersweet notes ring out as Warner details his influences on and eventual exit from Asheville’s entertainment scene, his words convey a certain confidence. “I’m at the sunset of my career,” he says. “I’m very grateful for the support [the patrons at all three clubs] have given us. … Everyone has been considered friends and family, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. All I can say is ‘thank you,’ and I’ll see you around.”
Over the course of nearly 30 years, countless locals and visitors have passed through the doors of Gatsby’s, Be Here Now and Broadway’s. Please share your memories from the clubs, however fuzzy, in the comments below.